Open note to director Mike Figgis: Stick with what you know.
To the movie-going public at large, Figgis is probably best known for Leaving Las Vegas. Otherwise, his name is mostly associated with artsy, independent projects that few people have ever seen — and none of which offers any suggestion that the filmmaker was the right person to helm a thriller. And while a lot of what’s wrong with Cold Creek Manor lies in Richard Jeffries’ screenplay, it seems unlikely the script told Figgis to linger forever on a shot of a certain architectural feature of the house so that it becomes an obvious plant for the fate of a main character (and sure enough, as soon as the big climactic encounter starts, it goes just where you think it will).
Moreover, as co-producer, it should have fallen to Figgis to take Jeffries aside and point out that a lot of his script is pretty silly and all of it is transparent. There’s a certain poetic irony in the fact that Figgis’ production company is called Red Mullet, because the supposed red herrings tossed into this non-mystery are mullet indeed. Perhaps Figgis has been too long preoccupied with the world of art films to have realized that his new film’s script is riddled with rip-offs ranging from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Ring. For a time, the movie even seems to think it’s Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, but those notions — conscious or otherwise — get quickly lost in Manor‘s improbable mayhem.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the setup: Affluent New Yorkers Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Leah Tilson (Sharon Stone) buy a decaying upstate New York mansion and soon discover that it harbors a dark secret. Fair enough. Except that the trailers don’t tell you that in order to get to this point, you have to slog through some indigestible marital-and-family-woes nonsense that explains why the couple and their spawn decide to play Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (see that film for an angst-free means to the same end). Presumably, this bilge was meant to give an otherwise average thriller some illusion of depth. In fact, it only gives it way too much extra footage — and that’s no illusion.
Similarly, the trailer doesn’t tell you that the family is going to be so incredibly stupid as to offer hospitality and employment to the manor’s former owner, the obviously psychotic — and just released from prison — Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff, still looking for that career he was supposed to have after Backbeat). At least Cooper seems to have one functioning brain cell, since he pegs Massie as the culprit when the place is suddenly infested with a variety of serpents — some venomous, some just for looks, very few indigenous to upstate New York. Despite the fact that only a scene or two earlier, Massie discovered the family is terrified of snakes, Leah thinks the idea that Massie planted a half-dozen or so slithering horrors in the house is absurd. Personally, I’d find it much more ridiculous to believe that all these serpents — including a geographically challenged coral snake — just happened to slither inside on the same night (maybe it was a herpetology convention), but then I’m not playing the too-stupid-to-live lead in a thriller. (I will admit that the snake scene — ridiculous though it may be — was the highlight of the movie in terms of laughs.)
The bulk of the plot involves unraveling the “mystery” by means of a warped pseudo-nursery rhyme that goes something like “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon her head” (I know that’s not it, but that at least captures the spirit), while a bunch of ostensibly adult characters behave in the most improbable ways imaginable. At the risk of giving too much away, let me just put this scenario to you: You know you’re being stalked by a madman (if nothing else, those four flats on your truck make you suspicious), and you make your way back to this old well where you left your wife, only to discover that the madman in question has knocked her into the drink. What do you do? Well, according to Cold Creek Manor, you just ignore the fact that there’s this fellow lurking in the vicinity who wants to kill you, so you laboriously set about fishing your wife out and pay no attention to what might or might not be going on behind you.
Alternatively, let’s say that you are the madman and you’ve just managed to dispose of half your problem by tossing this woman in the well. You know that the other half of your problem is going to come back and rescue her. Now, what do you do? If you’re stuck in a movie like this, you apparently amble off aimlessly so that you can turn up at a more convenient time and place for purposes of the script. Well, it’s that kind of movie, I suppose. And if it didn’t utterly waste a good cast, it might be forgivable as brain-dead schlock. As it is, Manor is glossy-looking, overproduced, brain-dead schlock that not only wastes its acting talent, but will waste 118 minutes of your time if you let it.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke