Posted: 09/22/2003

 

Cold Creek Manor

(2003)

by Joe Steiff



Director Mike Figgis shoehorns big-name talents Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid into a film that’s more memorabilia than memorable.


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Making a film that wants to be part thriller and part cautionary tale for the Two-Thousands, director Mike Figgis and screenwriter Richard Jefferies borrow images from films like The Ring, Unlawful Entry, The Godfather and Hell House; backstory snippets from films like The Silence Of The Lambs and the TV show Mad About You; the morality of films like Cujo; and the paranoia of films like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Pacific Heights. Almost all of these types of films work best if there’s a sense of intimacy with the audience. All Cold Creek Manor offers is familiarity.

On the day that Leah Tilson is about to be made VP if she’ll sleep with her boss, her documentary-making husband Cooper Tilson carts their two kids off to school and one of them is nearly killed while crossing the street by an impatient driver. Time to leave the big bad city for the safe wonderful country. While looking for a house to buy, they break into an abandoned estate that has been repossessed and put on the market. The Sheriff escorts them out of the premises, saying she hopes they’ll buy, because the county sure could use some new blood - get it? That’s what passes for smart writing here.

The only mildly interesting thing about this little upstate New York town (shot in Canada) is that not just the Sheriff is a woman, but the gas station attendant is as well. Okay, they’re sisters, but they initially seem stronger women than Leah who is still required to sleep with her boss in order to advance further in her high powered job. Unfortunately by the end, all of the women become pretty much victimized.

Because as you might guess, the family buys the house they broke into (get it - they’re the intruders). They proceed to sell the contents of the house. Except for some of the stuff Cooper wants to keep in order to make a documentary about the house’s history. Get it? They’re stealing from the previous owners, desecrating their lives.

In what seems virtually minutes after moving in, Dale Massie shows up inside the house, looking at his personal memorabilia and home movies strewn about Cooper’s office/editing suite. What would you do if the former owner of your house walked in uninvited and unannounced? Why, if you’re the Tilsons, you’d hire him to help you around the house because he knows it better than anyone - and this is after he’s revealed he’s not just that previous owner whose family has had the house for generations, but that he’s just gotten out of jail as well.

Now here’s a really clever part as well - Dale’s wife and kids are pretty much the exact same configuration as Cooper’s in terms of gender and ages. Though no one really seems too concerned or aware of how or why, Dale’s wife and kids are no longer around. And having Dale do his final aggressions wearing a police star, now that’s very profound.

The film throws the stock “you can’t trust people” horror into a bed of supposedly timely themes rife with pertinence. City people with lots of money move out into the country and buy up property with little respect for the local residents. People fall on hard luck, and unable to keep up with mortgage payments, they lose their homes to banks, which turn around and sell them to outsiders. Because of these, tensions can run high in small communities between relatively new inhabitants and descendants of multiple generations of townsfolk.

Boasting one of the more interesting casts for a thriller (Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone, Stephen Dorff, Christopher Plummer, and Juliette Lewis trying on Nicole Kidman’s nose), Cold Creek Manor is surprisingly unaffecting. Quaid and Lewis probably survive the best here, though Kristen Stewart as the daughter and Dana Eskelson as the Sheriff are both quite good. Sharon Stone is the least engaged I can remember ever seeing her in a film. Perhaps she’s really good and simply playing a disengaged character, but I don’t have enough evidence to make that assumption. Dorff may have been working out, but he seems menacing from the get-go, so it’s difficult to understand how he would insinuate himself into this family. You’d expect this film to be operating under the approach of “nothing is what it seems,” but unfortunately, everything is pretty much what it looks like and you’re just waiting for the body count to start. (Before some of you get too excited, the body count is cut short pretty quickly).

You can feel a better film wanting to break out of this. And Figgis takes some risks by primarily building atmosphere and taking his time to get to the fear. But ultimately, they’re risks that don’t pay off.

Somehow over the years, Mike Figgis has convinced a number of critics that he is an excellent director, but if one discounts the over-rated Leaving Las Vegas, his most notable film is his first, Stormy Monday. Maybe if he had had better material this time. Maybe if he had trimmed about 20 to 30 minutes off the two-hour running time. Maybe if he had found something fresh to offer us rather than following his screenplay’s example of recycling story elements by recycling images. Maybe he would have had a film that would be worth seeing, if not notable.

Joe Steiff is feeling crabby. Maybe it’s that repossessed house he bought in the country.



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