The movie builds atmosphere at the expense of action, buildup at the expense of payoff.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

To corrupt a line from "Mary Poppins," I always say there's nothing like a good haunted-house movie. But this is nothing like a good haunted-house movie.

Director Mike Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas," "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," "Timecode") circumvents the problem by saying his 2003 production, "Cold Creek Manor," is a psychological thriller. Fair enough. If only it involved more psychology and more thrills that we couldn't see coming a mile away.

Living in the big city can be noisy, hurried, and dangerous under the best of conditions, but when Cooper and Leah Tilson's son is almost killed in a traffic accident, they decide to call it quits, take their two children, leave Manhattan, and head for the quiet life in rural, upper-state New York. As the wife says, "Big houses in the country cost a lot less than tiny houses in New York City." So they buy a big house in the country. A really big house. Cold Creek Manor is a huge, rambling old estate, and maybe they should have questioned why they got it so cheap. It comes with a history.

Although the story takes seemingly forever to unfold, when the clues are in place early on, we know exactly what to expect for the rest of the film. And our expectations are fulfilled one-hundred percent. This situation doesn't make for much tension, suspense, or surprise, so that, too, becomes an expectation fulfilled. When Dale Massie, the weird, obnoxious former owner of the place shows up, just released from prison, we know all we need to know about what's going to happen next.

You can see how there could have been an earnest movie thriller lurking in here somewhere, a thriller along the lines of "Cape Fear," but the cliché-laden script, racked by implausibilities at every turn, won't let it get out. The manor, for instance, is described as a sheep ranch until recently, at one point slaughtering over a thousand animals in a couple of days. Yet the house is completely surrounded by woods. Where did the sheep graze? The Tilsons pay a relatively small price for the estate, but it's so rundown it would cost ten times the amount they paid to fix it up. A plague of six or eight poisonous snakes suddenly infests the house, and it's clear that somebody planted them there. But how did somebody sneak into the house where four people were sleeping and put them all around in different locations without waking anyone? And why don't the Tilsons call the police and ask for an investigation afterwards? And where would anybody get a half a dozen or more poisonous snakes in a small town? Did the culprit mail-order them, or did he drive to a distant snake emporium for the occasion? I mean, you don't just call up your local pet shop and ask to buy six or eight venomous snakes. When a viewer is constantly asking these kinds of questions while the movie is going on, it detracts from any suspension of disbelief along the way.

The characters are no better off than the script, either, as they are almost entirely one-dimensional. Dennis Quaid plays Cooper Tilson, a low-budget documentary filmmaker who decides to make a movie about the old house and its former occupants. But the documentary angle goes nowhere, except to tell us what we already know--that the house had some odd former owners. Quaid plays the part square jawed and grim faced at best. Which is more than can be said for Sharon Stone as Leah Tilson. She practically disappears, her character is so bland. The only two actors who fare at all well are Stephen Dorff as the creepy Dale Massie because he gets to take his shirt off and prove how well he took care of himself in prison, and Juliette Lewis as Ruby, the town trailer slut, because she's the only colorful character in the story and puts her teeth into the stereotype with relish. Christopher Plummer, of all people, is wasted in a bit part as old man Massie, Dale's father, lying in a hospital bed and being grumpy.

Director Figgis doesn't help matters by keeping his camera continuously in motion, panning left and right, in and out, cutting back and forth, and generally making one seasick. Nor is the music any relief, heavy-handedly underscoring every scene and melodramatically forewarning the audience of every coming event.

When the movie finally comes to its close a la "The Shining," it's amidst a thunder storm more appropriate to a B-grade, fifties' horror flick than a modern psychological thriller. Yet, ironically, the ending develops the only hint of intensity to be found anywhere in the picture. "Cold Creek Manor" is a strange blend of the good, the bad, the ordinary, and the awful.

Despite a healthy bit rate, the 1.74:1 ratio anamorphic transfer displays a few moiré effects and more than a touch of grain, the latter perhaps inherent to the master print. The image is also a bit soft and blurry and maybe a tad too dark, overall, even for a gloomy mystery like this one. The darkness causes facial tones to appear slightly purplish. On the plus side, outdoor colors in broad daylight are clear and bright, and there are no haloes or pixilated sequences noticeable.

The excellence of the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio almost makes up for the mediocrity of the video. There is a plentitude of realistic ambient sounds in the rear channels, noises from cars, birds, winds, rain, plus creaks and moans from the ancient house. The frequency extremes, bass, and dynamics are only average, but the stereo spread and directionality are exemplary. It's a film that's probably more fun to listen to than watch.

The disc includes a decent if not very extraordinary assortment of bonuses. The first item is the expected audio commentary with the director, Mike Figgis. The second item is an eight-minute featurette, "Rules of the Genre," wherein director Figgis provides us with some of his ideas about making a psychological thriller. Ironically, he tells us that a good thriller has to have a proper tempo, pacing, surprise, and confrontation, in addition to a quick cut to the chase, none of which I found satisfactory in his film. He also claims a good thriller should never let its audience get ahead of the story, which, of course, happens throughout "Cold Creek Manor." Oh, well. The third item is a seven-minute look at "Cooper's Documentary," the film about the history of Cold Creek Manor and the Massie family that Cooper is putting together within the story. The irony here is that the documentary Cooper is making is mostly cut out of the film. Oh, well, again. The last major bonus item is a series of seven deleted scenes and an alternate ending that, thankfully, were all left out of the final product. Finally, there are a few Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista movies and games and a meager twelve scene selections. English and French are the spoken languages offered, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
It seems a mite deceptive of Buena Vista to lead audiences to believe that "Cold Creek Manor" is going to be either a straightforward horror story or a supernatural, haunted-house movie. But what are people to think when they see ads featuring a structure straight out of "The Haunting"? Nevertheless, call it whatever you will, it still doesn't work. The movie builds atmosphere at the expense of action, buildup at the expense of payoff. I have no doubt it will find an audience among viewers who enjoy creepy, campy, old-time fright flicks. But most of "Cold Creek Manor" simply left me cold.


Film Value