*/**** Image A+ Sound A- Extras B-
starring Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone, Stephen Dorff, Juliette Lewis
screenplay by Richard Jefferies
directed by Mike Figgis
by Walter Chaw Conservatively speaking, I'm going to see something like four-hundred films this year and write reviews for about three-hundred of them. That's somewhere in the neighbourhood of "too many" and "much too many," and it's fair to wonder at some point along the way if my point-of-view is becoming coloured by fatigue, too many disappointments, too many deadlines, and the sort of imperious condescension to lacklustre product that begins to feel a little bit like hate. You get into this business because you love movies, you love talking about movies, and you love criticism wielded with responsibility--and then sets in the sobering realization that maybe the experience of going to movies might be permanently degraded by the experience of going to every movie and, worse, being forced to think about and contextualize all of them in a larger perspective.
So you can imagine my surprise when I felt excitement (excitement always the first symptom of optimism, you see--liken it to a quadriplegic feeling a drop of rain on his toe) that there was going to be a new big-budget haunted house film directed by Mike Figgis, one of the more innovative, if not always entirely successful, directors around, someone who at the least has shown a nice ability with actors and textures. And you can imagine my surprise when Cold Creek Manor turns out not to be a haunted house movie as the previews sort of suggest, packed with story inconsistencies and the sort of haphazard tonal shifts that suggest a filmmaker rusty or careless, or both, besides. It isn't only the previews (and the promotional art, and the title) that advertise a haunted-house film, in fact, because the picture starts out in exactly the same way as Burnt Offerings: an urban family tired of city-livin' moves out to the sticks to some weird old house that the locals look upon with suspicion.
Meet paterfamilias Cooper (Dennis Quaid), mother Leah (Sharon Stone), eldest daughter Kristen (Kristen Stewart), and youngest son Jesse. Dad comes armed with a digital-video camera and loads of editing equipment (he's a documentary filmmaker) and mother with the glassy stare of the not-now-never-was-leading-woman-material variety, while the kids are alternately the subjects of unattached Watcher in the Woods P.O.V. shots and inappropriate leers from evil redneck Dale (Stephen Dorff). More of the haunted house thing comes in Jesse's fascination with the little boy who used to live in their new house, the titular rundown manse in the middle of Hickville, USA--to the extent that there is the suggestion that Jesse is maybe being possessed by the little boy when Jesse begins to recite a weird rhyme that he finds in an old picture book. All the elements are there, but an hour passes into ninety minutes and nothing at all has happened that could remotely be considered either supernatural or interesting.
Cold Creek Manor opens with twenty-odd minutes of stuff that was actually cut out of Burnt Offerings: all that shuck and jive about the hustle and bustle of city livin' and how it wears on the sensitive nerves of parents in fear for their children. The edged allure of the suburbs has already been handled this summer with more agility in Finding Nemo, and the film that Cold Creek Manor would most like to be, Straw Dogs, is so much more muscular and uncompromising that it actually does the film a great service not to mention it. (Figgis is a lot of things, but Sam Peckinpah is not one of them.) When we finally see the house, it's introduced framed by a pair of thistles joined by a spider's web in the extreme foreground. Not foreboding, it's foreshadowing, so clumsy that it's quite deliriously hysterical--and not foreshadowing of anything to do with the house, per se, but rather that intrusion of the former occupants of the house, one of whom lives in a nursing home and tells stories cribbed from Silence of the Lambs ("Do you hear them, Clarice?"), the other freshly sprung from jail and wanting the homestead back. This leads to a few vaguely menacing "Hee-Haw" scenarios about cement ponds and infesting the house with snakes in the most un-scary sequence meant to be scary in the last twenty years, setting the stage for a pseudo-thriller/class struggle opera that finds Juliette Lewis playing herself again in the double-wide Airstream she probably lives in on the rusted car-strewn front lawn of her Hills of Beverly home.
If Cold Creek Manor can be analyzed at all (and with little else to occupy your time, why not?), it can be analyzed through the prism of that upper-class fear and mistrust of the lower class--a concern already handled to a higher degree of satirical success by Eli Roth's Cabin Fever, mainly because Figgis here seems unwilling to cast his high-falootin' bluebloods as the villainous transgressors. There's an interesting film in here about the intrusion and arrogance of the rich (Leah says at one point, invoking the fact like a talisman against yokels, "Hey, I'm from New York City!") and the ways in which documentary filmmakers can sometimes exploit their subjects (a problem examined to amazing profit in the fascinating The True Meaning of Pictures), but Figgis shies away from the sticky to rip-off a big chunk of Gore Verbinski's The Ring (the answer to "How, if it's not a horror movie?" is: "Shamelessly"), hoping against hope that folks like Quaid, Stone, and Dorff can carry the piece with their special brand of vein-busting emotibotics.
By the end of the mess, Cold Creek Manor has managed to drop almost all of its subplots in favour of a dedicatedly stupid finale ("He's out there!" Leah warns, "Don't worry about that!" Cooper assures), cheats the animalism of Cooper defending his family from the hillbilly other, and loses sight of the fact that if there's something salvageable at all in this torrential rubbish storm, it's the idea that people blessed with privilege and education are exceptionally prejudiced against people who are not. All Cold Creek Manor seems to be interested in, really, is packing as many people into the theatre as possible before word spreads and optimism is slain...again. Originally published: September 19, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Cold Creek Manor arrives on DVD from Touchstone in a classy package. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is flawless to the naked eye, rich in colour and both object and shadow detail; no Mike Figgis film has known a transfer this good since One Night Stand. Briefly touched on in the supplementals, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is more subdued than seems intended (if it's not a contradiction in terms, the atmospherics might be overly subtle), and to give you an idea of how the subwoofer could've been put to better use, the thunderstorm in Under the Tuscan Sun, a movie that isn't trying to scare the bejesus out of you, carries more sonic weight. Bonus features include a somnolent feature-length commentary with Figgis in which he steers clear of describing the on-screen action, but might as well not have. As is often the case in his writings and interviews, Figgis starts to sound like a parent running down a list of his kids' accomplishments--he always becomes tediously enamoured of his latest work.
Also on board are two featurettes surprisingly light on hype: "Cold Creek Manor: Cooper's Documentary" (7 mins.), in which we learn that Figgis shot all of the Dennis Quaid character's camcorder footage using a cool rig that Sharon Stone accurately likens to a steering wheel; and "Rules of the Genre" (8 mins.), wherein the filmmakers arrogantly and ironically delegate the ingredients for a successful thriller. Seven time-consuming yet uneventful deleted scenes (two with optional video introductions from Figgis, who additionally introduces this section of omitted material proper) plus a hilariously atonal alternate ending that would be at home in almost any Mike Figgis film but this one round out the disc, not counting the "sneak peeks" at Hidalgo, Veronica Guerin, The Haunted Mansion, "Alias", and the videogame "Tron 2.0". Originally published: March 11, 2004.