I’ve seen it a couple of times before, so let me say at the outset that I really like The Echo. As is the case with many of my favorite genre films, there’s nothing new here, at least not at the macro-level of narrative structure, nature of the supernatural problem, etc. If you’re looking for genre-twisting revolutionary horror, look elsewhere. But if, like me, you are not of the mindset that views innovation as the only praiseworthy quality in film, then you might enjoy The Echo as much as I do.
Director Yam Laranas has a penchant for awesome opening sequences (or at least it seems that way from the two films of his I’ve seen, the other being the brilliant The Road). As the credits roll we hear a woman’s voice, hysterical, sobbing, asking, “Bobby, where are you?” Then a city skyline, nighttime. The film is urban to the hilt, a nice spin on ghost stories of this type which are very often set in isolated, rural areas.
The main character, the aforementioned Bobby, is a muscle-head ex-con who is released on parole (we don’t learn the full nature of his crime until fairly late in the film). He is a surprisingly sympathetic character, a guy just trying to get by after untold awful events have basically ruined his life. Jesse Bradford, otherwise unknown to me, does a great job in this role, taking a character I would normally dislike (I’m a snivelly scrawny nerd) and honestly making me feel for the guy, and somehow doing this while remaining mostly passive and stoic and muscle-heady. His body language, facial expressions, tone of voice are all perfect, speaking volumes about defeat and despair.
Bobby is released and returns to his mother’s apartment. Unfortunately, his mom died while he was in prison. As he settles into her weird, creepy apartment, he discovers signs of her descent into madness: fingernails inside her piano (?), old cans of food in her closet. Turns out she was hearing things, locked herself in her closet and eventually starved. Meanwhile, Bobby’s neighbors turn out to be a gigantic, 7-foot cop, his teeny tiny wife, and their young daughter. The cop routinely beats them both, and Bobby struggles to do the right thing while avoiding the lawman who is, in a very real sense, his natural enemy (as a parolee).
Turns out that things are not what they seem, and something ghostly is going on. Bobby, other tenants in his building, and eventually his new boss and his burgeoning love interest are all drawn into the supernatural drama.
Urban decay. The hopelessness of lower-class life in a big city. The lack of concern among the people–social workers, police–who are supposedly maintaining order. Themes that don’t often pop up in supernatural horror/thrillers are quietly trotted out here and made uncomfortably visible and entirely sympathetic even to suburbanites like myself.
Sure, it’s not perfect. There are the usual issues: lingering skepticism about the spooky stuff, followed by the assumption of insanity, despite tons of proof that the creepy shit is really happening; a fairly formulaic escalation of said creepy shit; and some fairly standard jump scares. But none of that really detracts from the film. If I have one real complaint–and it’s still a minor one–it’s that there’s a kill here that I just don’t get. One character, a cool, stand-up guy, a genuinely good person doing his best to make something right, wanders into the midst of the ghostly happenings and gets offed seemingly for no reason. It doesn’t fit the pattern of the rest of the haunting, and I can’t explain it in terms of the mythos that the film establishes. But if I’m being honest this is more of a personal quibble, not really a criticism as much as a whine. I liked that guy.
There are some strange gender things, too, with both of the major female characters–Bobby’s love interest, and the ghost woman–being more or less helpless victims of male aggression. But there’s some reality behind this stereotype, in the form of the unfortunately high occurrence of this kind of violence; and the ultimate indictment of domestic violence that the film represents is, overall, a positive message. (Incidentally, domestic violence and bad cops are both themes of The Road as well.)
Actually, with its exploration of these themes, together with the recently released protagonist and the issue of (debatably) justified homicide, The Echo has a lot in common with the Famke Janssen-starring coulda-been-good-but-just-wasn’t 100 Feet. Even the villains are ultimately the same. These films came out in the same year, too, but The Echo is a remake of Laranas’ Tagalog-language 2004 film, Sigaw. I haven’t seen the original, but I’ll get around to it one of these days.
Based on these two films (The Echo and The Road), I’d even go so far as to say that Yam Laranas is in some sense the inheritor of the Asian horror mantle, combining the best aspects of films like Ringu and Shutter with a truly Gothic attention to place that is just super cool. See it if you haven’t already. It’s good.