By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
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By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
Never mind the trailers, which advertise Cold Creek Manor as some kind of horror-thriller, complete with the image of a hand emerging from the shadows to quiet (yes!) Sharon Stone. Mike Figgis, most recently a maker of unwatchable art-house fare shot on digital video (Timecode, Hotel) that suggests a fetish for technology and not the actors in front of it, has no interest at all in spooking us. His haunted-house movie is as scary as a trip to the supermarket. Those lured in by its creepy ads may find this disappointing; the audience stumbling out of a recent preview screening appeared underwhelmed to the point of comatose. "Boring," muttered more than one as they exited, though one fellow did claim to enjoy the Figgis-composed score, which is, when not inaudible, so pounding and overwhelming with the sound of fingers bashing piano keys and sticks beating snare drums that you might think it was left over from a military movie's soundtrack.
It would be all too easy to trash Cold Creek Manor, to suggest it's an artiste's failed return to the well-moneyed mainstream after years of self-exile in Avant-Gardeland shortly after he left Las Vegas with Oscar's blessings. Most frightening of all, it boasts a screenplay by the man who wrote the Chevy Chase-Jonathan Taylor Thomas three-wheeled vehicle Man of the House, and what few scares that exist are cheap; the biggest of them all involves a few snakes scattered around the countryside mansion purchased by Manhattanites escaping the mean ol' Big City. Most are on the level of random bursts of noise -- breaking glass, a simple alarm clock -- shattering the silence. We're meant to jump out of our seats, but they might send one straight for whatever's playing next door.
But assume for a moment that Figgis, culling together elements from such disparate films as Cape Fear (a muscular, tattooed stalker menacing a family) and Poltergeist (a woman submerged in a pit of soggy corpses) and Affliction (a grizzled, abusive father) and even The Blair Witch Project and The Long Hot Summer, didn't set out to make a spooky movie. Assume, by which I mean give the contrarian the very generous benefit of the doubt, his is a hopeful movie about the decay and potential repair of the American family merely dolled up in a Halloween costume. It takes some digging, but it's there, sort of -- beneath the muck obscuring the corpses, around the corners where shadows lurk.
At film's beginning, it's suggested that the marriage of Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Leah Tilson (Stone) is an unhappy one. She's an upwardly mobile executive willing to go downwardly on her boss for a promotion; he's a would-be Ken Burns making documentaries about New York buildings, and they have two cranky kids in private school. One day, their son Jesse (Ryan Wilson) is nearly run down by a petulant motorist, convincing Cooper it's time to hightail it to the peaceful countryside -- where, the audience knows well before purchasing a ticket, it will be anything but peaceful.
One afternoon they find themselves at the chained gates of Cold Creek Manor, a sort of overgrown, run-down Gosford Park -- the kind of house that in its heyday might have entertained movie stars, but in actuality was a sheep slaughterhouse. It appears as though the previous owners left in haste years earlier: Clothes still hang in closets, books and papers and maps still fill every room, and framed on the walls are eerie pictures of creepy men doing evil deeds. Everything about the rotting house -- from its low-low price of $210,000 to the sign in the woods that reads "evil" -- says, "Stay the hell away," which, of course, the Tilsons do not. This is our first clue Figgis is figgin' with us: The Tilsons are the very people who would go into a dark room when they hear something go bump and not only not turn on a light, but absolutely refuse to do so -- in short, the very people who get deservedly killed in movies like this. Figgis ups the ante by making them blind to every single warning sign around every single dusty corner. He wants this couple, who've convinced themselves they're happy, to get what they deserve.
Coop, having nothing better to do, decides to make a documentary about the home using the discarded refuse of its previous owners -- one of whom, Dale (Stephen Dorff), shows up after a three-year stint in jail (for, ahem, "an accident") and persuades the Tilsons to hire him on as a handyman. This leads to several scenes of the shirtless, sweaty Dale mowing the lawn and flirting with Leah while eyeing the Tilsons' daughter (Kristen Stewart). He's a William Faulkner escapee gone hog-wild in New England, and Dorff, as well as Christopher Plummer as his malevolent pa and Juliette Lewis as his white-trash girlfriend, puts his everything into a movie that means absolutely nothing.
Or does it? After the Tilsons put together the one plus one the audience added up during the first 15 minutes, they become a real couple -- if memory serves, and it may not between the giggling and dozing, Cooper and Leah only become affectionate with each other after she starts trusting him and realizes that, duh, Dale may be a bad guy after all. It's a subtle note in a deafeningly dull movie, but it's there nonetheless -- the most romantic thing Figgis has ever said trapped inside the dumbest thing he could ever make.
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