A Stir of Echoes vs. The Sixth Sense

Both films hold in high regard their child characters, two boys who become strong individuals despite unbearable hauntings.

So far, only The Blair Witch Project has been as unsettling as either The Sixth Sense or Stir of Echoes. Yet, Blair Witch was one of those films that was so experimental that it didn’t necessarily register with everyone. Not so with Echoes and Sense.

Similarities

  • Tight mysteries mixed with supernatural thrillers
  • Child actor phenoms
  • Memorable taglines
  • Cold-blooded ghosts
  • Genre inspirations
  • Supernatural missions
  • Great endings

Sense is certainly no independent film, as with Blair Witch, but its creator M. Night Shyamalan has similarly taken Hollywood by storm with his movie. An Indian American, newcomer Shyamalan both wrote and directed Sense, he second major studio release. He also directed Wide Awake, another child actor film in which a fifth grader goes on a search for God after his grandfather dies.

Sense is a supernatural thriller/screamer that does more frightening than The Frighteners. Although different in tone, those two movies are similar. Michael J. Fox has the ability to see the spirits of the recently deceased. Ultimately, Fox is completely upstaged by one extremely talented child actor in Sense, Haley Joel Osment. His is probably the best child actor performance I’ve ever seen in his age group. This 10 year-old kid reminds me of Elijah Wood in his younger years with the natural presence he commands in front of a camera. Only a few other child actors struck me as such obvious proteges. Anna Paquin’s Oscar-winning performance in The Piano is one, Jurnee Smollet in Eve’s Bayou, and the 4 year-old Victoire Thivisol in the French Ponette. Osment is in nearly all of Sense‘s scenes, and he plays a wide range of emotions, mostly the difficult ones: tortured, schizophrenic, and hysterical. He pulls it off without the least bit of pretense that would put a lot of adult actors to shame.

Fortunately there isn’t the expected scent of competitiveness in the air with his costar, Bruce Willis. To Willis’ credit, I haven’t seen him turn in this good a performance since 12 Monkeys or Pulp Fiction. Far removed from his resiliency in the Die Hard days, Bruce plays child psychologist Malcolm Crowe with a quiet sense of vulnerability and strict professionalism. Crowe is so dedicated to children that his marriage begins to wear. After one patient’s failure to fully recover under his care, Crowe becomes obsessed with his new case, young Cole Sear (Osment).

Written by longtime screenwriter David Koepp, Echoes is also a supernatural thriller, leaning more on the mystery side. Starring Kevin Bacon in another fine role, his costars, What About Bob?‘s Kathryn Erbe and child actor Zachary David Cope, have now been upgraded to 1st Degree of Bacon (see The Oracle of Bacon for more info). Perhaps an actors’ fad, it’s still interesting to note that both Cope and Osment go by all three of their names professionally.

Although his scenes aren’t as stealing as Osment’s, Cope does an excellent job with his part as Jake, the son of Tom Witzky (Bacon), adding all the right childish innocence and creepy lines. The two also share probably the most quotable movie taglines since Poltergeist’s “They’re here…” Osment’s line is of course, “I see dead people” and Cope’s “Does it hurt to be dead?” is just as unsettling.

Cole’s macabre gift is physical interaction with unfortunate souls that don’t realize they’re dead (gunshot victims, suicides, and terminally diseased). This interesting twist on the afterlife is Mr. Shyamalan’s clever way of paralleling the denial that the living often tackle when said loved ones pass on. The atmosphere is akin to Ghost, but not at all romantic. Replace fuzzy warm feelings with eerie spine-tingling mood.

Tom sees dead people too. Little does he know, so does his four year-old son. A skeptic, his gift isn’t realized until he undergoes hypnotism by his sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) in an attempt to discredit her belief in the paranormal. Unwittingly, she has opened Tom’s mind to the unexplainable. “He’s a receiver now,” as Tom’s wife Maggie (Erbe) later discovers.

For some reason, the transient dead like the cold. In Sense, Cole’s visitations with spirits were always preceded by a drop in the temperature, complete with his condensing breath. The effect is a chilling one, no pun intended. The phantasm in Echoes likewise begins to reveal itself by cold weather.

Both Echoes and Sense have well established muses in this category of screamer. Sense plays out like the voodoo spiritual Angel Heart with its twisted ending and borrows from The Shining with the tortured boy and his a paranormal gift.

The two have many similarities to the reality-bending Jacob’s Ladder. In Echoes, for instance, Tom adjusts to his predicament at the advice of Jake (“Don’t be afraid of it, Daddy”). This tidbit comes atop the family stairwell, a direct clone of the father-walking-up-to-son scene in Jacob’s Ladder. Also, Tom’s digging is reminiscent to Richard Dreyfuss’s otherworldly mashed potato sculpting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What is most enjoyable about Echoes and Sense, besides their scares, is the sensitive regard for their child characters. Think of it: here are these two little boys who have been in impossibly unbearable situations all their lives. Yet, both have become strong individuals in spite of them.

In a scene from Sense, Cole tells Malcolm that his teachers often called his mother concerning alarming pictures he drew of the apparitions that visited him. So he started drawing rainbows instead to mask his true feelings. “They don’t have meetings about rainbows,” Cole tells Malcolm deadpan.

Jake too wants only to protect his mother from his gift. When Tom and Maggie consult Jake about their visitations, he tells Tom, “I don’t want to talk about this in front of Mommy; it scares her.”

Have Premonitions, Will Travel

Perhaps predictably, both Sense and Echoes follow a sort of whodunit approach to their respective postmortem mysteries. According to both, the secret of relieving your supernatural torment is to inquire of the dead what it is they want. This of course assumes that the disembodied spirits are logical entities and need the assistance of mortals to right some wrong that beset them in the living.

For bedeviled little Cole in Sense, that mission is to carry out the last wishes of each of his ghoul acquaintances. Some met death tragically, others shockingly. Regardless, Cole musters a strength of character beyond his years to bridge the gap between the living and the recently departed.

For Tom in Echoes, that mission is to dig — a lot. He digs with shovels and pick axes and jack hammers. He becomes methodical and maniacal, finally paranoid and relentless in solving his puzzle. Who is Samantha Kozak?

Both Echoes and Sense share marvelous endings. Have no fear, I wouldn’t consider ruining such inspired conclusions. But suffice it to say, that both Shyamalan and Koepp have written very bold screenplays that don’t give us perfect closure. While the tension is tightly drawn and most of the holes are filled by the end, neither story simply abandons their characters. Seeing spirits walk the earth isn’t something that Cole and Tom & Sons can just walk away from after their missions are complete. Therein lies both films’ allure. The mysteries are solved, but we’re left to wonder what lives the characters will lead. Certainly not an easy happily-ever-after ending.

The most haunting sense of uncertainty is Echoes‘ Jake as he looks outside the back seat window of the family car. He watches the buildings of the neighborhood breeze by for the last time, as his family moves away. A myriad of voices crowd his little mind (as the film title implies), and he covers his ears to make them go away. How will he and his father deal with them?

Differences

  • Dangling subplots
  • Amount of special effects

Where Sense neatly ties most of its loose ends, Echoes leaves some dangling subplots. One involves an interesting cult of fellow Receivers, a network of psychics as strange as the phantoms that haunt them. Unfortunately, this subplot is not explored further, yet still produces an effective illusory setting.

Digital Demons

Of his two afterlife novels adapted for film, Echoes is by far Richard Matheson’s most accomplished. His previous, What Dreams May Come, was too ambitious. The difference in the two rests in their interpretation. Dreams was an entirely conceptual representation of the netherworld; thus much computer graphics ensued, which made the movie difficult to sell.

Echoes doesn’t exactly abandon visual effects either. To be sure, it never resorts to splashing grandiose gimmickry on the screen to get its thrills, as in The Haunting. Instead, Echoes paints with discretion, melding subtle transitional FX in crucial scenes. For instance, when Tom first undergoes hypnosis, Koepp masterfully displays his hallucinations. As Lisa gives Tom each subliminal suggestion, the visions in Tom’s mind shift to match them. The walls and seats of a darkened theater morph from bright marble and burgundy plush to charcoal silence.

Sense on the other hand, is the most pure psychological thriller of the two, not delving into any special effects to tell its story. There’s no written rule that says a filmmaker can’t use computer graphics. Yet, in an age when plot and budget are sacrificed to whiz-bang effects, it’s refreshing when a film like Sense reminds us of the power of the “purist” thriller. The result is nothing short of a picture that Hitchcock himself would approve.

As supernatural thrillers go, they don’t get any better than The Sixth Sense and A Stir of Echoes.

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