DON'T YOU just love Kevin Bacon playing . . . Kevin Bacon?

I do. He's cool, he's taut and he's free. Whatever supporting role he gets -- whether bullnecked military man or leering redneck -- he makes his own. You're always sorry when the story shifts away from his character. And sometimes, you'd swear he's good-looking.

So it's great to see him center stage in "Stir of Echoes," David Koepp's vibrant, unsettling thriller. Adapted from Richard Matheson's novel, this is a movie that glides past cheap shock and chills the intelligence.

Of course, there's visceral horror, too, including a grisly image -- a horror-in-miniature involving a fingernail -- that located an open nerve in my jaded ability to endure screen violence. I can't walk past nail salons without intense psychological prep work anymore.

Bacon plays Tom Witzky, a blue-collar guy from a Chicago neighborhood who gets into a friendly baiting session with his sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas) at a party. sk

Ragging on Lisa's ability to perform hypnosis -- and the subject in general -- he challenges her to mesmerize him right there, in front of everyone.

"What's the worst that could happen?" Tom asks his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe).

When Lisa ushers him -- and us -- gently into the Rabbit Hole of his psychic abilities, he finds out.

Imagine yourself in a movie theater, she tells Tom. We see a shot of a blank movie screen and the heads of a movie audience in front of it. This connects us to the story with a palpable, three-dimensional clutch. Lisa tells Tom to imagine more things, and soon there is silence. Darkness. A blip later, Tom comes around.

It isn't long before he realizes Lisa has unlocked his nascent ability to see a new realm, a sort of halfway station for the hereafter, where souls wander in torment.

Tom tries desperately to blot out the horrifying visions, including a mortifying apparition on his sofa. But nothing can stop them. Tom also learns his precocious son, Jake (Zachary David Cope), has the same psychic abilities.

"I opened a door, that's all," protests Lisa when Tom begs her for help.

Writer-director Koepp, who wrote the scripts for both "Jurassic Park" movies and "Mission: Impossible," clearly knows a thing or two about suspense. Step by step, we're drawn deeper into this thing, with just enough to keep us in the dark and hungry for more. (Interview with Koepp, page 50.)

Koepp's also a whiz in the kitchen when it comes to boiling the pressure cooker. A three-way edginess flares up at the Witzky home, which almost matches Tom's terrifying visions. Maggie becomes more hostile and estranged from Tom. And Jake, who wants to accommodate his mother's resistance to para-reality, also feels the strain of seeing too much.

Bacon's performance is a delight, a jangled mixture of taut energy and endearing goofiness. When Tom plants himself on that sofa at one point, determined to wait until the apparition returns, the suspense goes from nail-chewable to hilarious. He waits and waits, staring at the spot, eyes darting left and right. The eye-dancing vigil begins to suggest the ridiculous ritual of the bug-bitten camper, feverishly waiting for that mosquito to reappear. But this is no insect he's waiting for. And that's what keeps us going -- the thought of what it could be. Or whom.

STIR OF ECHOES (R, 99 minutes) -- Contains graphic violence, sex, nudity, obscenities. Area theaters.