In the indie horror game, narrative storytelling is everything. Even on the tightest budget, with the most inexperienced actors, a filmmaker can still pump out the next big genre “thing” as long as it’s a story worth telling. Granted, the other aspects can’t equate to kindergarten bullshit and film school inexperience, but when a story is THAT tasty, so indulgently succulent and juicy, it’s hard to keep from scarfing it down.
With that said, Echoes is not horror’s next smash hit. It lacks the creative ingenuity of It Follows, the charm of Turbo Kid, and the practical goriness of Stitches, but it’s interesting enough to keep viewers at attention for a brisk hour and a half. I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but compared to the heap of sloppy continuity-inept nightmares I’ve been forced to sit through recently, Nils Timm’s horrific manipulation of sleep paralysis provides a welcome fable built on a sturdy foundation.
Kate French stars as blogger-turned-aspiring-writer Anna Parker, an ambitious woman who spends each night battling the symptoms of sleep paralysis. She doesn’t get much shut eye, which worries her boyfriend and agent, Paul Wagner (Steven Brand), so he suggests they take a secluded vacation at his posh desert hideaway. Their time is cut short when Paul is called back for an emergency work meeting, but Anna ends up staying by herself after convincing Paul that isolation provides the perfect writing environment. Alone in the house, Anna starts seeing horrifying images of a mysterious figure, but she can’t tell if it’s just her imagination playing tricks yet again. She calls Paul and begs him to come back, which he does, but not before a host of dark secrets are uncovered.
So, on the surface, everything sounds fairly contrived and been-done-before, and I won’t argue that notion much. French’s character finds herself unnecessarily alone, she sees haunting images at night, and her daily routine is fueled by dream-induced paranoia. But French’s performance isn’t of the usual low-budget boredom, and she finds a torturous balance between conjuring fear in everyday activities while also encountering far darker dreamland material with hesitant curiosity. Her bouts with sleep paralysis end up being some of the film’s best scenes, complete with close-ups as her bulging eyeballs frantically dart around under her closed eyelids – a physical representation of the mental prison she finds herself trapped in on a nightly basis. It’s a jarring, suffocating presentation that somehow hasn’t found a bigger usage in horror movies despite undeniable dread.
Timm also fleshes out formidable arcs for his other characters, especially once a native mystic reveals the possibility of unconscious possessions. We’ve all seen exorcism stories and bodily takeover flicks before, but Echoes combines a dusty unsolved mystery with a spirit’s ability to take over empty, sleeping bodies in a way that makes for an interesting take on a familiar twist. When Anna opens her eyes to reveal oil-black pools, tension increases since we know this probably spells trouble for anyone who might be in her direct vicinity. Be it her boyfriend Paul, played with ample shadiness by Steven Brand, or the generically creepy ex-groundsman played by Steve Hanks, Anna’s demonic battle offers that bit of invigorated storytelling I was mentioning before.
Then again, I wouldn’t go as far as to label Echoes as “horror” in the least. There are a few scenes that certainly will make your skin crawl thanks to a nightly visitor who looks like her skin has been turned to crumbly, dehydrated particles, but even those moments aren’t meant to make you hoot or holler. Timm goes about Anna’s scenario in a more grounded, simplistic way, and this does cause some moments to drag a bit slower than masterpiece thrillers permit. There are a few satirical jabs thrown in about Anna’s blogger background (“It’s not like one of your blog posts where people can look at pictures when they’re bored of your writing”), and the haunts work, but even with an appealing story, there are stretches where generic blandness can’t be avoided.
Echoes is a perfectly passable VOD watch for when you’re curled up one night, in need of a spooky filler – just don’t expect a genre bombshell to leave you in a state of shock and awe. The performances are strong enough, the story invites plenty of fresh takes, and Timm strings together some pretty picturesque creepshows against a desolate desert landscape, but it’s one smidgen better than any old time-waster. Echoes benefits from its core strengths and rises one notch above the other hundred similar films that drown under their own floundering weight, destined to remain a solid under-the-radar watch that’ll probably find more success once it’s added to Netflix’s streaming database.
Echoes is a perfectly good-enough ghost story that shines a noteworthy spotlight on the inherent horrors of sleep paralysis.