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The Diminishing Returns of ‘The Echo’

The most striking aspect of The Echo has nothing to do with the film’s narrative at all; rather, it’s the realisation that someone actually wanted such a soul-sapping exercise in cinematic mediocrity to ever meet the business end of a film camera in the first place.

Produced during the latter stages of the Zeitgeist for Asian horror cinema, The Echo brings absolutely nothing new to the genre, and feels like a tired, futile exercise, a compilation of the various tropes of J-Horror packed into yet another vehicle riven with cliché and designed to wring the last vestiges of popularity from a film subgenre that has been in decline for several years now.

The Echo is a remake of a Filipino film of the same name, and is directed by the same filmmaker, Yam Laranas. I can’t imagine what possessed Laranas to involve himself in such an artistically pointless project (actually I can, and it involves multiple dollar signs and the hope of a fabled key into Tinseltown), but it should be noted that the original film — made back in 2004 and initially titled Sigaw — is in fact a fairly solid sleeper flick.

Still, some directors nevertheless seem bizarrely intent on rehashing their perfectly adequate material in the name of diminishing returns and a new Western audience, and this has always struck me as a rather regressive, risky and unproductive career move. (I could be very uncharitable here and suggest that even a dog knows not to return to its vomit, so filmmakers have no excuse whatsoever).

The Echo features Jesse Bradford as Bobby, recently released from prison following a sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Now a pariah and ostracised by family and friends, his only hope of social stability is a new car mechanic job acquired via the probation service, and also the possibility of rekindling a relationship with struggling waitress and beautiful ex-girlfriend Alyssa (Amelia Warner), who actually played a part in his incarceration. However, when Bobby moves into the large, shabby apartment vacated by his recently deceased mother, he starts receiving visits from a ghostly presence, causing the cracks in his life to reopen.

There really is a palpable sense of déjà vu to the proceedings, and not just because The Echo is a remake. Laranas seems fairly uninspired throughout, forging ahead and stringing multiple clichés together until the whole creaky construction flutters to the floor in little pieces. How about the presence of a silent and seemingly parentless young girl who sits alone and plays the same repetitive and supposedly spooky musical motif on a discordant little plink-plonk toy piano? Yep, there she is, outside Bobby’s apartment. The odd assortment of strange residents that occupy the large building also begin to try one’s patience too, and I get the distinct impression the that filmmakers were strongly influenced by The Shining, with Bobby’s apartment building doubling as a sort of urban Overlook Hotel, and straddling the same chasm between sanity and madness.

Like much contemporary horror, the film’s style is testing and overwrought. The interior of Bobby’s apartment is plagued by all manner of disembodied moans, groans and scraping sounds, and it’s no surprise that they are mixed too loudly into the soundtrack, just for those who require a sledgehammer with their subtlety. Perhaps worst of all, The Echo is chock full of infuriating, lazy shock cuts, embellished, quite naturally, by disproportionately cacophonous noises.

This really is a horror film bugbear of mine. Imagine creeping right up behind some poor, unsuspecting sap and then enthusiastically clanging a saucepan with a wooden spoon. No doubt you’d have to peel them off the ceiling afterwards, but is this really a clever or creative scare tactic? Does it involve any cinematic skill, or the need to sustain an atmosphere conducive to terror? No, because it is primarily the unexpected volume that rattles the senses. If you want to watch a film that does manage to convey a prolonged and intensely creepy environment by using a slow build-up of tension, you need to disregard weak contemporary efforts like The Echo and refer instead to truly great supernatural films such as The Innocents, made at a time when bluster and noise were kept to a minimum.

It would be unfair to entirely dismiss the film’s effectiveness, because amidst the wearisome and overly familiar fluff The Echo does have a few marginal redeeming moments, although they are sparse. Whilst the unconvincing actors portraying the supposedly down-at-heel and emotionally troubled main couple could have leapt straight from the pages of a health spa catalogue, the excellent character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince is, as always, a very welcome addition to the supporting cast. He uses the short amount of screen time he is afforded to create quite an impression, and it’s a testament to his skill that he is far more memorable than the film’s identikit leads.

The photography is suitably gloomy, too, and the art department has managed to imbue the labyrinthine apartment complex with a tangible wood-panelled authenticity, which does give the film some chilly realism. There are some effective scares too (when the director reigns in the noisy nonsense, that is), with several unsettling moments to be had when our protagonist is subjected to the increasingly frequent appearances of a creepy, dead-eyed female ghost. Only he can see her too, which is a stylistic device that allows Laranas and Bradford the opportunity to create some interesting and tense moments, as Bobby is forced to stifle his terror in the face of the phantom before him, lest his unsuspecting colleagues think him insane. Perhaps the most impressive element of the film is the music score by Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn, which is both doom-laden and tastefully unobtrusive. (Oh, if only the sound designers and film editors had shown the same restraint!).

Still, these few notable qualities are unable to lift The Echo from a pit of mediocrity. When the film limps to its resolution, the climactic revelation isn’t too much of a surprise, partly because key narrative strands have already been telegraphed beforehand, so joining together the tenuous plot lines isn’t really a great stretch for someone with a keen sense of the genre. While I was watching The Echo, I was reminded that for all the flaws inherent in the work of M. Night Shyamalan, this film inadvertently confirms just how ingenious and bold The Sixth Sense really is; in fact, Shyamalan’s film reaches the very zenith of high-concept art in comparison to a very average ghost story like The Echo.

Indeed, comparisons to earlier and better films only exacerbate The Echo’s shortcomings. In the wake of masterful and genre-defining supernatural works such as The Changeling, Ringu, Honogurai Mizu no soko kara and the aforementioned The Innocents, the production of a derivative film like The Echo is akin to creating a cheap kit car version of a prestigious marque: the film may contain all the constituent elements required to make a superficially successful and appealing whole, but ultimately it’s nothing more than a façade, an insipid carbon copy, a poorly-constructed conglomeration of bits ‘n’ bobs bolted together without flair, conviction or originality.

The are no extras on the disc.

RATING 4 / 10