My first blog post of the new year! 2020! Woo Hoo and stuff! Time to look forward! Time to reflect on the past. But when doing the latter, be careful not to get overwhelmed in those “Stir of Echoes’! Or is it “A Stir of Echoes”? That depends on whether we are referring to the book (A Stir of Echoes) or the movie (Stir of Echoes). In this case both will suffice, for I’ll be discussing both the film and the novel!
So, whatdidja’ think about my intro and how I segued from New Years thoughts to a creepy tale of the paranormal? Pretty nifty, huh? You are saying “no.” Oh. Well sorry. I just had to fit in some kind of “Hey it’s a new year” subject here at this blog. It’s obligatory. Everyone’s doing it! But since I don’t have any thoughts on 2019 vs. 2020, resolutions, and all those hyped-up concepts, I thought I would simply begin the first post of the year doing what I do best – writing about scary stories. They were there in 2019, more will come in 2020. More still will come in the new decade and so many came out in all those decades of the past.
Right now, I want to go back a couple decades, back to that old century we left behind in 2000-2001. Not that far back into it. Not yet. For now, let’s go to the tail end of those 1900 years – the Prince year of 1999.
Back in 1999, four guys went to the movies. We saw The Blair Witch Project. Afterwards we went to a bar where we graded the film over beers. I gave it an A, John gave it a B, Greg a C, and Arvin gave it a D. Quite the spread! Left with much to be desired but still in the mood for a horror movie, Arvin suggested we regroup and see some Kevin Bacon horror movie. (Really? Thought me. Kevin Bacon, that pretty boy?! In a horror flick? (I had forgotten he had already starred in Friday the 13th way back when)). Anyway, we went for it (Greg stayed home), and to my surprise I enjoyed it. It was a chilling ghost story packed with mystery and suspense, taking place in my favorite city, Sweet Home, Chicago! I loved seeing familiar sites up there on the big screen.
“Did I pick good, Cheely?” Arvin asked, “Now wasn’t that better than that Blair Witch Project?”
Now I don’t know about that, Arv! They were two different movies, apples and oranges my friend. But you made your point; Stir of Echoes is a decent flick.
Many years later, I discovered this cool author dude named Richard Matheson when I read and wrote about his work Hell House. Who knew that this guy was a beloved Sci-Fi and horror writer that gave us many books that were turned into movies? Such films include I am Legend, What Dreams May Come, The Legend of Hell House (Book =Hell House, no “The Legend”), The Incredible Shrinking Man (Book = The Shrinking Man, no “Incredible”), and yes, “Stir of Echoes” (Book = A Stir of Echoes, this time the author’s title has more words than the film title. Well, just one more word = the letter “A”.)
Again I ask, “Who knew?”
Hypothetical Reader: Uh, Mr. Blogger Man, a lot of people knew this.
Me: Okay, but did these people “in the know” also realize that Matheson was a prolific writer for the original Twilight Zone series?
Hypothetical Reader: Yeah, they did.
Well, I didn’t know any of this until about eight years ago, approximately twelve years after I saw the movie. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally read A Stir of Echoes. Very good book. And, to make sure that I still enjoyed the film, I watched it again a few nights ago. Did I still like it? I did.
Now, is the book different from the movie? Yes, in significant ways. David Koepp, writer/director of Stir of Echoes does things differently. Can a Hollywood writer (Koepp) known for writing major action and superhero movies (Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Mission Impossible , Spiderman ) be on par with telling the same yet different story as the great Matheson? For the most part, with a couple of exceptions, the answer is “yes”
Let’s explore the plot and some key similarities/differences between the film and the book.
In both mediums, the generic story is as follows:
After a family man, (both a husband and father) undergoes hypnosis, he awakens with psychic sensitivities. He will use this special “sight” to explore unsolved mysteries that take place in his neighborhood. Warning: the consequences in meddling in these areas can be deadly!
So far, so good. Now I shall present two expansions of this synopsis. One for the book and one for the movie. Here I go, wish me luck!
This is a tale of a man , Tom Wallace, who is hypnotized by his brother-in-law. After hypnosis, he gains psychic abilities. He can read the minds of others, he can forecast future events. He can sense danger abroad. He can communicate with the dead, as evidenced by his confrontations with the spirit of a woman that is apparently haunting his house.
The story takes place in the suburbs, where families go about their lives. With his newfound abilities, drawn shades become transparent – in a metaphoric sense (He’s not a Peeping Tom!) He can “see” into the private lives of his neighbors. What dark secrets to they harbor? What past tragedies have defined their modus operandi? Answers come slowly inside little peeks, like that of a person looking into a small hole in a fence, it’s aperture limiting the view of the large scene that is being acted out. It is a voyeuristic talent that he never asked for or wanted.
In the process, readers are treated to various stories concerning different families in the neighborhood. The book also examines the struggles that come when he is suddenly “gifted” with psychic abilities and the strain that this exclusive knowledge has upon his marriage and his job. Anne, his wife, is troubled by her husband’s strange and sudden ability to “know things”. His son Richard, approximately three or four years of age, will be dragged unwittingly into this dangerous game of crime-solving. Does he possess a special sight as well?
Tom Witzky is hypnotized by his sister-in-law. After hypnosis, he gains psychic abilities. These talents are forced into use by the ghost of a dead teenage girl. He comes to realize that she haunts his house, where he lives with his wife Maggie and his son Jake, who is approximately six years old. Jake has been communicating with the ghost girl since before the events that take place in the movie. Only after Tom is hypnotized does he have encounters with the ghost girl. Nearly all of Tom’s episodic moments of clairvoyance point to the mystery surrounding the girl’s death. Throughout the movie, he follows these clues until he discovers a startling secret that involves some of his neighbors.
Right from the get-go, viewers know that they are watching a ghost story movie. Most of the events of the movie are tied to this ghost story. His marriage becomes strained as he and his son Jake, both now possessing psychic abilities, form a bond to the exclusion of Maggie. This bonding has to do with the mystery surrounding the ghost girl.
Notice a difference between these two descriptions? The second one has more emphasis on the ghost story, doesn’t it? But there are other differences as well. These differences might make more sense with more details. But I tried to juxtapose them in such a way so as to not give away too many spoilers. Going forward, I will not be so concerned with spoiling the plot. I will provide specific details that point out the major differences. So if you don’t want to have the plot spoiled, read no further!!!
Oh No! Spoilers Below! Oh No! Spoilers Below! Oh No! Spoilers Below! Oh No! Spoilers Below!
There are several subplots occurring in this story. In the end, it is the story that surrounds the ghostly elements of the plot that ties most of the various subplots together, both in the film and the novel. The book doesn’t let on that this is happening until the very end. However, the book does cover a broader spectrum of events concerning what Tom sees with his special powers – not everything that enters his special sphere of awareness has to do with the ghost story.
Let’s go over some “for instances.” While at work, Tom suddenly has a premonition that something has happened to his wife. He rushes home and discovers that his wife had an accident and hurt her head. This event occurs in the book but is absent from the movie and it has nothing to do with the ghost story. Other examples include Tom’s ability to know the gender of his pregnant wife’s unborn baby (in the book and not the movie. Remember – the book was published in 1958 – they did not have the medical technology that they have today to ascertain the gender of a pregnant woman’s unborn baby.) Both the film and the novel cover the moment when Tom suddenly knows that his wife’s father?/mother?/grandmother? (I forget which) has passed on before the fateful phone call came. But the book covers this event in much more detail.
The best example of a difference between being part of the ghost plot/not being part of the ghost plot has to do with The Babysitter.
The Babysitter From Hell
In the book, Tom and Anne go out to dinner, I believe, (they could have been at a movie, a concert, but this is irrelevant), leaving little Richard with a babysitter. While at the evening event, Tom is struck with the notion that Richard is in grave danger! They rush home just in time to thwart an attempted kidnapping on the part of the babysitter. This has nothing to do with the ghost story.
In the movie, Tom and Maggie are to attend a sporting event with their neighbors. Alas, the babysitter cancels. But little Jake mysteriously suggests that his mother should call a sitter named Debbie Kozac. Maggie checks around and finds that the teenaged Debbie comes highly recommended. As it turns out, the teenage ghost girl told Jake to mention Debbie to her mother.
Tom and Maggie attempt to attend the event. Before entering into the stadium. Tom suddenly realizes that Jake is being kidnapped. He rushes back to the house, but Jake and the babysitter are no longer there. Intuitively, he knows to check at the nearby train station. Once there, he discovers Debbie holding Jake. Ah, but she is not trying to flee with him aboard some train! It turns out that Debbie was only bringing the boy to his mother who works at the station. She wants Jake to tell the mother about a conversation he was having that she overheard. Jake claimed to be talking to Samantha Kozac, Debbie’s somewhat mentally challenged older sister who had disappeared without a trace. The official story was that Samantha had run away but Debbie and her mother don’t believe that. This kidnapping-by-the- babysitter plot ties in very much to the ghost story.
So, what’s the deal with Samantha Kozac? We’ll get to that, but let’s back up a bit and explore differences in terms of setting and characters before we get to the “biggie”!
In the book, the story takes place in the suburbs of…is it California? I forget, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a generic suburban setting with lawns and houses on either side and across the street, with “the plant” nearby where Tom and his buddy across the street carpool together to work. Middle class all the way.
In the movie, the story takes place in a Chicago neighborhood. It is a white man’s blue collar neighborhood all the way. Neighbors have beer parties and barbecues on the street, they talk of sports and men to their manly things (fathers are proud of their football playing sons). They talk with neighborhood accents.
(Note: It was cool seeing scenes from neighborhoods such as Logan Square, Lincoln Park. But, uh, production guys? These ain’t blue collar hoods. These are gentrified yuppie havens. No middle-aged white men with thick gray mustaches acting all machismo. For that you go to the South Side. But hey, doesn’t affect the story, I know. I’m just saying..)
Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?
The book – Let’s see, next door to that Wallace’s there is a couple, forgot their names, but the woman is very flirtatious and often her nasty thoughts are broadcasted onto Tom Wallace’s most receptive mind.
Across the street there is Frank and Elizabeth Wanamaker. Frank is Tom’s buddy. But Frank is quite the asshole, and he is always cheating on his wife and putting her down. Somewhere on the other side of the Wallace’s are his landlord and landlady, Harry and Mildred Santas. See, the Wallace’s are only renting the house they live in. They are an older and quite private couple. Harry is a bit cantankerous. Before renting the house to the Wallace’s, they allowed Mildred’s sister Helen Driscoll to live there. But one day she just ran away, leaving a note announcing her departure, and they had never heard from her since.
The movie – Tom’s buddy is Frank McCarthy who lives down the street with his wife Sheila and their teenage college-bound son Adam. Frank is played by Kevin Dunn in the movie, and Kevin truly is a Chicago guy! Adam is a budding football star.
Tom leases his house from Harry Damon, who I believe lives across the street. Sporting a gray mustache, he has a son named Kurt who is Adam’s age. Kurt and Adam are buddies.
The book – It is Anne’s brother that hypnotizes Tom. He is a licensed hypnotherapist.
The movie – It is Maggie’s sister that hypnotizes Tom. She is a pot-smoking, new age flake.
The Creepy Boy – Tom’s Son
The book – Little Richard is perhaps 3-4 years old. It is hinted that he might be a “sensitive” like his father. At one point, the ghost communicates through his little voice.
The Movie – No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts,” about it, Jake, who is older than the Richard of the book, is one psychic little dude, more so than his father will ever be. The movie begins with him talking to a ghost, before we are even introduced to Tom. I think the movie was going for a “creepy kid” angle.
The Gun Shot
The book – Tom hears a gunshot before it happens. He rushes to the scene where the shooting is to take place. But alas, it has already happened. Elizabeth Wanamaker has shot her husband Frank and then has fainted. Frank survived the shooting and he doesn’t press charges against his wife. It was an “accident”. Turns out, Elizabeth has psychological issues.
The movie – Tom has a vision. He is standing in the house of his buddy Frank. Adam stands before him with a gun. An argument ensues. Is the kid going to shoot him? No. Instead he turns the gun on himself and pulls the trigger.
It turns out that Tom is seeing what Frank is about to see, looking through his eyes. Tom rushes to the house but he is too late, Adam has already pulled the trigger. Adam survives but he is in critical condition.
There’s a body in the house!
The book – Through a series of supernatural clues, Tom is convinced that Helen Driscoll, his landlady’s sister, had not run away and is in fact, sadly, dead. She is the ghost who is haunting their house. Perhaps Harry the landlord killed her. It turns out that Helen was promiscuous and had been shacking up with her sister’s husband. Maybe he killed her to keep the affair a secret (dead women tell no tales – or do they?). But he needed more evidence. Perhaps her body was hidden on the premises somewhere? In the movies, bodies are hidden in the lowest portion of the house, so he goes there, to the crawlspace. Finally while in the crawlspace, his psychic intuition kicks in and he knows where to dig.
This is perhaps the most awkward and rushed part of the book. His psychic proclivities do not lead him to the cellar but rather his knowledge of horror stories in general does this. Anyway, they find the murdered body of poor Helen.
The movie – Tom is convinced that the ghost of the teenage girl that haunts his house is Samantha Kozac. He postulates that she did not run away but instead was murdered. However he is troubled by all these psychic messages and he asks his sister-in-law to undo whatever she did to him under hypnosis to open his brain to the supernatural world. She tries, but turning hypnosis, the spirit invades his mind and orders Tom to “DIG!”
Tom goes home and digs up the back yard. Finding nothing, he digs around in the cellar. Eventually he stumbles upon a wall with loose bricks. He removes the bricks and finds a hidden, enclosed space. There in the space is the body of Samantha Kozac wrapped in plastic.
The Big Reveal
The book – After finding the body, Elizabeth Wanamaker pays the Wallaces a visit. She points a gun at them. What’s going on?
It turns out that she killed Helen. Not only was Harry sleeping with her, but Frank had been visiting her bedroom as well and Elizabeth found out about it. Elizabeth had watched Harry leave the house of his sister-in-law, knowing why he was there. When he was sure that he was gone, she snuck into the house and killed Helen with a fireplace poker, then buried the body under the house. It was she who forged the note about her running away.
A struggle ensues, but the Wallaces aren’t harmed. Elizabeth is locked away in a psychiatric hospital.
The movie – Tom reaches out to touch the corpse of Samantha. When he does so, he receives a vision of what happened to Samantha in the final moments of her life. He sees with her eyes.
Before the Witzkys move in to the rented house, the place is vacant. The landlord’s son Kurt uses the house as a place to party with his buddy Adam. The two boys lure Samantha into the house and attempt to rape her. In the struggle, they accidentally kill her. They hide the body and go to their fathers’ for help. The fathers, Harry the landlord and Frank, Tom’s buddy, agree to conceal the crime. When Tom finds out their secret, Harry and Kurt try to kill him but Frank intervenes and saves him.
Which is better – the film or the book?
Both the film and the book are very good. Each tells a similar story and both are successful at doing so. But I guess in this case the old adage is correct – the book is better than the film.
The book tells a broader story, even though the film does quite well with a more narrow tale. However, there is one part of the movie that I have failed to mention that cheapens the film a bit. I’ll mention it now.
Maggie and Jake are walking in a cemetery and they stumble upon a cop who also happens to be gifted with “special sight.” The cop and Jake immediately recognize this about each other. The cop is a large black man and this whole exchange reminded me of The Shining, with the little Danny Torrence talking to the Overlook Chef Dick Halloran. It was kind of a rip-off moment if you ask me.
A later scene where the cop talks to Maggie reveals that both her husband and son are figuratively walking through a dark tunnel. Tom has a flashlight with a small beam whereas Jake has a large beam. In other words, Jake can see into the paranormal world much better than his father. The reason for this whole scene was not to explain to Maggie what is going on, but to explain to us, the viewers, what is happening with this father/son “gift”. How in the hell does this cop know all this? He just does. A rather contrived way to explain the whys and wherefores if you ask me.
Otherwise, both the book and the film are very good. I recommend both.