War All the Time — Stir of Echoes 2: The Homecoming (2007)

Matty reassesses a supposed ‘cash-in’ sequel with some surprisingly heavy things on its mind.

Born in Ukraine in 1968, Ernie Barbarash arrived in Canada in 1977. Enamoured with the stage and screen, Barbarash eked a living as a theatre director in the early ‘90s and moved into film towards the end of the decade, bagging an exec job at Cinépix Film Properties just prior to their relaunch as Lionsgate (née Lions Gate Films) in January ‘98. Now best known for helming action flicks Falcon Rising (2014) and Abduction (2019), Barbarash cut his teeth as a producer on Lionsgate’s The First 9 ½ Weeks (1998), Prisoner of Love (1999), and American Psycho (2000). He was then tasked with overseeing a pair of follow-ups for the company, American Psycho 2: All American Girl (2002) and Cube 2: Hypercube (2002), which, in turn, led to his directorial debut, prequel Cube Zero (2004). Weary of franchising, Barbarash started developing a topical supernatural shocker, ‘The Dead Speak’, for his sophomore feature. Alas, his plans were curtailed slightly when Lionsgate agreed to greenlight the project under the proviso it become another sequel, STIR OF ECHOES 2: THE HOMECOMING

Released in the U.S. in fall ‘99 by Artisan Entertainment — a shingle Lionsgate acquired for a cool $220million in December 2003 — David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes (1999) was well-received by critics but significantly less successful at the box office, especially when compared to contemporaries The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) (the latter of which Artisan distributed). It did, however, do excellent business on video, DVD and cable, making it a hot enough property to revisit during the halcyon days of Lionsgate’s teaming with SyFy — a union that also resulted in fellow horror sequels Beyond Re-Animator (2003), Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005), and Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005)

Using the then-still-raging ‘War on Terror’ as his backdrop, Barbarash’s plot concerns an army ranger, Ted Cogan (Rob Lowe), haunted by an incident he caused at a military checkpoint in Iraq, whereupon a vanful of civilians were killed after a miscommunication. Back in his native Chicago, Cogan experiences terrifying visions of a badly burned phantom — but are they a disturbing symptom of the vet’s PTSD or a plea for help from a restless spirit closer to home?

Though plagued with several ropey moments and lumbered with a laboured and unconvincing dénouement, this engaging — albeit lopsided — meld of cattle prod jolts and Jacob’s Ladder (1990)-esque allegory is a sturdy frightener anchored by Lowe’s compelling central performance. Contrasting the film’s gentle autumn colour palette with the robust scare sequences, Barbarash fosters a strong sense of dread and fear, but it’s the introspective and serious-minded nature of his self-penned screenplay that offers the most nuanced shivers and dramatic nourishment. Given the film’s genesis as an entirely different project, narrative connectivity between The Homecoming and Stir of Echoes is minimal even by the expected standards of a tardy DTV cash-in. Only a shoehorned in bit of exposition delivered by someone meant to be the psychic son of Kevin Bacon’s character from the original serves as ‘proper’ tethering. That said, in terms of the same basic premise (spectral activity as a catalyst for amateur sleuthing) and the same basic tone, The Homecoming does maintain a degree of conceptual fidelity, with Barbarash’s weighty ruminations on jingoism; suicide bombings; Taliban beheadings; the callousness of the military-industrial machine; and the far-reaching effects of trauma joining the weaker musings on guilt and the splintering of the family unit that he half-heartedly plunders from Koepp’s movie.

Stir of Echoes 2: The Homecoming premiered on SyFy on 11th August 2007 and landed on U.S. DVD via Lionsgate three-and-a-half months later, on 20th November. Ex Brat Packer Lowe subsequently appeared in Barbarash’s syrupy Hallmark/Netflix opus, Holiday in the Wild (2019).

USA/Canada ● 2007 ● Horror, TVM ● 88mins

Rob Lowe, Marnie McPhail, Ben Lewis ● Wri./Dir. Ernie Barbarash 

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