Nothing But 'Echoes' Of Spookier Films In This Dull Ghost Story

Directed by: Nils Timm; Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: D

Somewhere out in the ether of fiction yet to come, the ideal blend of the writer's process and surreal psychological horror waits to be discovered and materialized for the big screen. Sure, some films have successfully dabbled with the possibilities in metaphors and meta-context, but we've yet to see that great first-person supernatural thriller about a mentally-imbalanced author getting lost in the horrors of their untrustworthy mental landscape, about what's real and what's merely part of their psychosis. The impressions left after viewing the trailer for Nils Timm's Echoes weren't strong enough to expect that it'd claim that mantle, but the tense demeanor and spooky supernatural imagery suggested that it might be a worthwhile indie-budget effort. Sadly, a handful of absorbing visuals and determined enigmas are all that's really going for this perplexing, comatose blend of stunted creativity and wavering sanity.

Echoes centers on a screenwriter, Anna (Kate French), caught in a creative funk as the final call for her most recent manuscript approaches ... and it's just not cutting it. Part of the problem stems from Anna's inability to sleep, leading her to down different medications and copious amounts of alcohol. When she does get off to sleep, she endures nightmares and frequent bouts with sleep paralysis, making it understandable that her workflow hasn't been the most consistent. To offset this, her boyfriend, Paul (Steven Brand), also the middle-man between her and the studio, whisks her off to a secluded modern house in the California desert, only to be called back to the city for work shortly after. Anna chooses to hang back at the house -- alone, prone to anxiety, without reliable phone service or a car -- and continue writing until he returns in a few days, so it comes as little surprise that she starts to see a shadowy, cracked figure in her dreams. Unsurprisingly, the strangeness surrounding the house doesn't stop there.

Director Nils Timm establishes a commendably eerie tone at the beginning of Echoes, hinged on an unpretentiously engaging visual style that elevates the confines of the desert-bound house of glass. Moody music, which sounds like something in the space between Silent Hill and the work of David Lynch, elevates the pleasingly-composed cinematography that looks as if it's been sent through numerous different Instagram filters for its color tempos. The expanses of the desert seen through the windows creates an eye-catching portrait of barren seclusion, which starts to play with the viewer's perception once Anna's problems predictably come to the surface. Granted, none of this can make the contrivances of the isolated setting seem any more reasonable -- being a "big girl" still means making smart decisions about your state of mind, Anna -- but at least there's a dose of atmosphere going on that could, in theory, support a credible mind-screw or two.

For that kind of psychological vagueness to work, there needs to be a discernible, genuine character responding to their dreams and losing their grip on reality, someone with whom it's possible to engage with their psyche. Regrettably, Anna isn't that character due to a stiff performance from L Word and One Tree Hill alum Kate French, who woodenly sleepwalks through blocked-writer stereotypes. There's a surprisingly small amount going on there for a boozy, pill-popping screenwriter with chronic sleep issues and hellish dreams, though that's also the after-effect of the script giving her very few distinguishing traits beyond a foul mouth and a streak of mild curiosity. Anxiety may escalate in the California desert as reality and insanity start to blur in Anna's mind, but the flatness of her character as a whole makes it all remarkably unconvincing and powerless to hold attention, whether she's trekking the desolate wilderness and bumping into strangers or catching a glimpse of specters in security footage.

There's a mystery in Echoes guarded by director Timm until the time's right, one that bridges the gap between the tragic history of the glass house and Anna's visions during her sleep cycles, but the faint interest in discovering that connection gets diluted by the humdrum mess leading to that revelation. Uncannily similar in concept to 2009's supbar Deadline, from the mentally-unstable female writer in her cutoff location to the paranormal events that may or may not be facets of her imagination, the film tumbles through scant, obligatory jump-scares while revealing more pieces of its thinly-veiled puzzle. On its own, that tragic story unearthed by Anna could play as a mild but coherent urban legend in front of a campfire. When combined with the film's present-day supernatural elements, however, including a detour into native spirituality, the result is a disjointed whimper of a supernatural exercise whose vein of ambiguity comes across as hesitant storytelling instead of a blur of genres.

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