It's not supposed to work this way. Usually, a marketing campaign will have a juicy horror film on their hands, like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or THE SIXTH SENSE and realize that they need to sell it as something "classier" than your typical slice-and-dice. So, we hear terms coined like "suspense and terror" or "supernatural thriller." Horror films, after all, are seen as something much lower on cinema's evolutionary chart. It's not until we watch SILENCE or SIXTH SENSE that we realize what wonderful, terror-filled romps they are, and the only thing that frustrates us, is Hollywood's continuing lack of confidence in the genre.
I suppose I should feel somewhat encouraged that COLD CREEK MANOR gets this marketing ploy completely backwards. The trailer promises something terrifying. The house hides all sorts of ghostly secrets and the covers seem to move long after Sharon Stone gets out of bed. What they don't tell you is that the secrets amount to a redneck in a doublewide and the covers move because there is a garden snake under the covers. There is no doubt that 2003 is a banner year for horror, what with all the interesting films that have been popping up. But COLD CREEK MANOR is definitely not a horror film. In fact, it's not even very good.
Leah Tilson (Sharon Stone) is a working mom who we're told spends about 90% of the time working, and 10% of the time being a mom. Her husband, Cooper (Dennis Quaid) is a documentary filmmaker who does all the dad-like duties. Two events coincide to open the tale. On a plane trip, Leah considers sleeping with her boss in exchange for a promotion. At the same time, their youngest child is almost run over by an SUV outside of his school. The Tilsons panic. "We've got to get out of the city," Cooper says. Yes, of course. Because the city is to blame for all your woes. Why, in the country, people never get hit by cars or worry about their wives fucking their way through the glass ceiling.
It's one of the more hypocritical things about Hollywood. The country is either a place of inbred rednecks or a magical land to escape it all and get back to the simpler things in life. In COLD CREEK MANOR, it happens to be both, while taking no time to reconcile the two. Rural America is never shown as being what it is... just a change of scenery. I always find it amusing when several million dollars are thrown at these "city-bad/country-good" films. I've got news for you. The stars didn't read this in a modest shack. Their agents didn't broker the deal while enjoying some fishing on the Great Lakes. And I guarantee the film wasn't greenlit by a guy in suspenders, saying, "Well, shucks. I'd love to pay six figures for your script. Just let me clean out the chicken coop first." But fine. If the studios want to pretend they're Ma and Pa Kettle, I'll bite.
As humble country estates go, Cold Creek Manor is pretty enormous, with loads of unused farmland that has now grown lush with bushes. The manor sports several floors and even a swimming pool that looks pretty near Olympic-sized. The Tilsons enthusiastically take up residence and look forward to fixing the place up (We don't know when or where the kids will start school again).
Everything is great until the home's previous owner, Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff - BLADE, FEARDOTCOM) shows up. He's an unwashed person who sweats a lot and belches at the dinner table, so you just know he can't be trusted. Still, he reassures them. "This, right here," he says, "it's alright." He's happy to see the Tilsons in the house he couldn't pay for, and he's willing to help out around the house just in case. That's all until something unfortunate happens and Dale is immediately blamed. A bigger movie would have had the Tilsons' prejudices exposed and shown they were wrong. But COLD CREEK MANOR is not a big movie. Cooper is right, Dale is wrong. They are the nuclear family and he's just the help. Of course, he's evil. This is never questioned. The film escalates slowly, very slowly, as Dale sends passive-aggressive taunts Cooper's way.
And that's pretty much it. Yes, that's the whole movie. Dale's pissed, starts mouthing off. Does he try to kill them? Nope. Hurt them? Nope. Harm those around him? Weeeell, yes. But it should pack more of a punch than it does.
But otherwise, nothing much is made of the film. In fact, they have to bring in a mystery, one that is literally solved within five minutes, in order to justify Dale's overdue freak-out. When it comes, it's nothing near enough, and it actually seems uncharacteristic for the loudmouthed-but-harmless guy we've come to know. The ending, complete with the so-called mystery seems tacked on to justify the actions of the characters. Dale's actions as a means to an end and the actions of the Tilsons, which are nothing short of ridiculous. When I say the ending looks tacked-on folks, I'm talking about crazy, eye rolling, "Is-this-the-same-movie?" stuff that haunted such films as FATAL ATTRACTION. But FATAL ATTRACTION's ending was changed by the studio. I can find nothing of any production troubles COLD CREEK MANOR suffered. It could be studio interference or it could just be sloppy writing.
A lot of talented people are mixed up in this mess. Juliette Lewis (FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, STRANGE DAYS, NATURAL BORN KILLERS) shows up as Dale's girlfriend. She gets into shoving matches with the city folk, drinks like a fish and says she fell when she has obviously been struck. My God, she even lives in a doublewide trailer. It's a stereotype that leads me to ask, what happened to this great young actress? Ditto Christopher Plummer. Shouldn't his role in THE INSIDER have prevented this sorry string of extended cameos once and for all? Same old, same old, as Plummer is unfortunately regulated to a similar role, one that could have been filmed in a day. For this role, he never even gets out of bed.
In the leads, Dennis Quaid actually turns in one of his better performances. He is completely believable as the stay-at-home dad who would do anything to protect his family. Dorff is truly surprising. It has taken him a while, but he is beginning to prove himself as a truly intriguing actor. His turn as Dale Massie is easily the best in the film, and every time he's on screen, there's at least some entertainment.
After Sharon Stone's amazing turn in CASINO, for which she should have won an Oscar, her career has been on a downward trajectory. Earlier this year, she was featured in a commercial where she had just finished sleeping with the AOL Instant Messenger mascot. COLD CREEK MANOR is a step up from this, but not by much. To be fair, I give her credit for bravery. She has waited for a role with a lot of room for talent. Unfortunately, the role itself seems confined to the "upset wife" category, and Stone is not allowed to break through it.
Nothing is more frustrating here than the role played by director Mike Figgis. Because really, he doesn't do anything wrong. Since LEAVING LAS VEGAS, Figgis has been a very intriguing filmmaker, always willing to experiment. Unfortunately, his experiments only work part of the time, something illustrated by his film TIMECODE. I cannot fault him for one single camera movement, one single piece of mise-'en-scene or any other directorial touch save for the ending. As near as I can figure, he handles everything very well. He even contributes a solid musical score.
No, the real problem here is screenwriter Richard Jefferies, who gives us a script but forgets the story. Jefferies has written horror before, with THE VAGRANT, SCARECROWS and BLOOD TIDE. Only Jefferies forgot to mention that this is not a horror film. I'm not faulting the film for not following through on the advertising. That's the fault of the publicity department. But the film needn't stand still. People around me were nodding off in the theatre, and I know I heard at least one person snore. It isn't that the film moves slowly. Slowly is good. It's that the film doesn't move at all. Ever. It doesn't have anything interesting to say and when the clock runs out on the film, they rush in a storyline just to give some sort of dramatic tension.
The motivations of the characters are completely wrong. Lewis is one-dimensional and Dorff's turn doesn't ring true. Moreover, we can't figure out why Quaid would want to stay in town, as most of the townsfolk seem to be siding with their native son, and not the Tilsons. Home is where the heart is and I'm sure there's one to be found in COLD CREEK MANOR. Unfortunately, it can't seem to beat given all the dead weight surrounding it.