In Hollywood, demonic visions are as common as the chickenpox -- it feels like most of the cute little kids on screen have had them at some point.
We've seen it before in "The Shining" and "Poltergeist." It came up again this summer in the smash hit "The Sixth Sense," starring Bruce Willis.
And writer/director David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible") uses that tried and true toe-curling formula in his latest effort, "Stir of Echoes."
Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky, a hip working-class Chicago husband with a 5-year-old son and a baby on the way. Life is normal too normal, Witzky complains.
Apparently neither he nor his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe, "What About Bob?"), notices that their son, Jake, wanders around the house talking to dead people.
Complaining that Witzky is too close-minded, his free-spirited sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas of "To Die For") hypnotizes him at a party, which begins a sequence of haunting, surreal images.
At home, he is tormented with headaches, thirst and blood-soaked hallucinations. It's clear that a post-hypnotic suggestion has left Witzky with the same connection to the dead that Jake has carried all along.
Eventually, Witzky and Jake are both communicating with Samantha, a dead runaway who once lived in their neighborhood. Like most pesky ghosts, she won't go away until Witzky acts on her behalf. Witzky becomes obsessed with trying to communicate with her, and eventually becomes entangled in the mystery of her murder.
Despite the tired telepathic concept, "Echoes" remains surprisingly fresh and suspenseful. The audience doesn't need ESP to predict the closing scene, but the means to that end are still pretty compelling.
Witzky's visions first seem like lame excuses for gore and eye candy, but they eventually piece themselves into the solutions of a bigger puzzle. They're confusing and even frustrating initially, but come together in such a pleasing way that the audience can't help but share Witzky's satisfaction when the truth finally comes out.
"Echoes" lacks the substance of a real psychological thriller like "The Shining," forcing Koepp to blatantly manipulate the audience's nerves with formulaic filler. The strange part, however, is that it often works. In the opening scene we see Jake, wrapped in a bath towel, staring up at an invisible ghost with his enormous brown eyes and asking, "Does it hurt to be dead?"
It's painfully calculated, but so what? It's also downright chilling.
The movie runs slowly at times, particularly when we're dealing with the Witzkys' marital spats. It's obvious enough that Tom's new-found ESP is making life difficult without their annoying bickering. One can sympathize with Maggie as the frustrated wife confused by what's happening to her husband and son, but at times Erbe's constant eye rolling and hair tossing make her less inviting than that creepy ghost.
Bacon appears a little bored at times, but overall he's likable as an everyday guy swept away by his new capabilities. It's downright comical to watch the neighbors look on disapprovingly as Witzky digs up his back yard and rips apart the basement floor with a jackhammer, frantically trying to find Samantha's corpse.
"Echoes" is not pretending to set any new standards in horror and suspense. But it spices up the same old fare with interesting visuals and a fresh approach, for a creepy and disturbing good time.
RATING: *** STARS