“Have you ever wondered what happened in your house before you lived there?” So says the tag line from the trailer of “Cold Creek Manor,” an intriguing new thriller promising suspense and mystery, promising that the so-called truth of Cold Creek Manor will be revealed. But unfortunately for award winning director Mike Figgis, better known for his Academy nominated “Leaving Las Vegas,” the teaser is just a teaser and the movie is just an average movie in a long line of psychological thriller copy cats. Try as it might to hold our attention, it disappoints at every turn, ending in a whimper rather than a bang.
Life is bustling in Manhattan for documentarian Cooper Tilson and his wife, Leah. The couple live in New York City along with their two children, Jesse and Kristen. One day, while Leah is away on a business trip, Cooper navigates through crazed downtown traffic and a variety of distractions to drop the kids off at school. However, shortly after getting out of the car, Jesse is accidentally struck by an automobile, and the family is forced to rethink their frantic lives. In an effort to change lifestyles, the family decides to leave town and move upstate to the countryside. Specifically, they take interest in a repossessed house for sale entitled Cold Creek Manor. The house is a real fixer upper; yet the Tilsons can hardly beat the price. Immediately, they purchase the house and begin to move in, but their arrival is met with a series of odd behaviorisms from the local townsfolk.
As the family becomes acquainted with their new surroundings, they discover a variety of historical artifacts, photographs, and heirlooms left behind by the previous owners – some very bizarre. This is all stimulating stuff to Cooper, the noted historian, who quickly becomes interested in assembling all of the pieces from the past. But somewhere in the middle of it all, a strange man begins to make his presence felt. Dale Massie, who spent the last few years in prison, has returned to the Manor to reclaim his family’s residence. Dale provokes the Tilsons to pay him to clean up the swimming pool and perform other chores around the house. But that’s not enough, for just as Dale shows up, strange things begin to happen – snakes infiltrate the house, a horse winds up in a swimming pool, and Cooper and Leah’s relationship gets strained.
Slowly and persistently, Dale tries to force the Tilsons out of the house. He’s the town bully and no one will dare contest him, not even the local law enforcement. As tensions surmount and wills clash, a final confrontation between Dale and Cooper is inevitable, one that will hopefully tie everything together from the past, present, and future of the mysterious mansion.
“Cold Creek Manor” is a messy, unoriginal thriller. It starts out as a Stephen King-like mystery – a New York family takes residence in a foreboding mansion in a small town where the local town folk, even the sheriff, act strange. Suddenly, the son of the previous owner shows up and the film migrates into Scorcese’s “Cape Fear,” where Dale antagonizes the family in a variety of ways, all in order to get the family to leave “his” house. The Tilsons, of course, don’t help matters by making some very illogical choices. There are many similarities to “Pacific Heights” and plot devices from The Ring, though I dare not give away the specifics. But even more so, the film resembles “Straw Dogs,” the forgotten and controversial 1971 film with Dustin Hoffman as a mathematician who moves into a new home with his wife only to have his life destroyed by the local townsfolk who are incensed by his arrival. There, instead of it being one man, it’s the community who bully and exact violence on the Sumners in an effort to evict them from their home.
By far, however, the largest pitfall this film has is that it leaves too many stones unturned. The screenplay, written by first timer Richard Jeffries, presents many unique plot twists and developments that go unfulfilled and unresolved. There’s even an obnoxious score to tell us when and how we’re supposed to react a certain way. But questions abound: What did Jesse see in the book that told him where the Devil’s Throat was? What is the Devil’s Throat? What is the significance of the cult? How did Dale end up in prison? Why does Ruby stay with Dale? Why did Leah come back to Cold Creek Manor? What was at the bottom of the well? Why didn’t Dale push Cooper in? Why was the father still alive? I could go on and on. Unfortunately, many of these questions are questions you’ll be asking yourself at the end of the movie. It’s as if, after building up the story, the filmmakers forgot where they were going, how they got there, and what to do next. And once the true motives for Dale’s behavior are uncovered, you realize that the filmmakers couldn’t answer the questions themselves and opted for the quick and easy way out.
Yet despite the lack of inventiveness and the unresolved mysteries, the film actually succeeds in one respect: it’s able to generate a stirring and continuous curiosity that keeps us occupied for most of the film. The primary reason is due to the performance of Stephen Dorff as Dale Massie, the sweaty, violent brute antagonizing the Tilsons in every way imaginable. Dorff is impressively frightening and peculiar, torn asunder by a variety of hidden emotions and far more dynamic a villain than his Deacon Frost in the original “Blade.” This portrayal is the one worthy element in a film that is devoid of concrete dialogue and a logical plot presence. Regretfully, as much as I really like Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone, their performances are merely adequate supplements to a screenplay that fails to expand their characters and make sense of their character’s actions.
“Cold Creek Manor” is one of those films that has great potential, but disappoints when all the dust settles. Instead of presenting us with a refreshing take on the thriller genre, it goes for the contrived and answers complex questions with simple, yet unsatisfying results. After building a solid story full of suspense and tension, the film wraps things up in the most ridiculous fashion. And just like Dale describes a house: “A house is just a shell, right? You live in it for a while and then things change.” This film just happens to be one of those shells, all empty inside.