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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Cold Creek Manor (review)

House Pitiful

It’s like if Bob Vila made a thriller: “Booga booga booga! Be careful which house you choose to renovate– Ooo, look at that beautiful original 19th-century molding!” Some spoiled rotten yuppies decide they’re fed up with the big city and chuck it all to move to the country, which is never a good idea under the best of circumstances and goes especially horribly wrong here. Which is kinda metaphoric for the movie as a whole, too — movies about arrogant city slickers rubbing the countryfolk the wrong way are rarely a good idea, and here particularly so.

Apparently, Mike Figgis, who produces arty little films, decided to do a big scary Hollywood flick, only he wanted to have it both ways, wanted to make an intriguing and thought-provoking psychological exploration of the disillusionment of urban sophisticates thrust into the unexpected sociocultural complexity of a rural American society that counts an ax-wielding, psychotic, homicidal lunatic amongst its members. I’m not saying the idea couldn’t work, only that it doesn’t in how Figgis presents its iteration in Richard Jefferies’s script. In a remarkable instance of negative alchemy, Cold Creek Manor manages to be both as mind-numbingly dull as the worst kind of introspective character drama can be and as hoot-inducingly clichéd as the worst kind of thriller.

Dennis Quaid (The Rookie, Far from Heaven), sporting the only-in-a-movie name of Cooper Tilson, uproots his family — including the perfect wife, Leah (Sharon Stone: Simpatico, The Muse), the perfect kids, Kristen (Kristen Stewart: Panic Room) and Jesse (Ryan Wilson), and the perfect SUV; only the golden retriever named Sparky or Buddy or George is missing — from a beautiful Manhattan brownstone to the neglected and rundown Cold Creek Manor in upstate New York (played by Canada). All manner of ominous forebodings follow the Tilsons to the house, from the stanky ho, Ruby (Juliette Lewis: Old School, Enough), at the one gas station/bar/restaurant/convenience store in town who gives them the evil eye when she hears where they’re going to the weird trailer-trashy guy Dale (Stephen Dorff: Blade), who shows up all sweaty and menacing and informs the Tilsons that Cold Creek Manor was once his home. Ruby and Dale on their own pretty much constitute the “unexpected sociocultural complexity of rural American society,” so it’s on to the ax-wielding murder.

Well, not quite. Despite what you’ve been led to believe via the trailer and the TV ads for Cold Creek Manor, this is not a nonstop roller coaster ride of thrills and chills and suspense. It’s about an hour and a half of Cooper being, frankly, pretty creepy himself, not in any interesting way but in a way that suggests that no one really gave much thought to how creepy he is, looting the house (which the Tilsons bought with contents intact) for all the family photos he can find — he, a filmmaker, is planning to make a documentary about the former owners, even though clear legal and moral issues abound when you’re talking about people who abandoned the house practically yesterday and who are, in the form of Dale, clearly not happy about the idea, and who can blame him? It’s an hour and a half of renovating the house and cleaning the pool and Kristen getting a pony and Jesse exploring the woods and Cooper and Leah’s marital discord, the extent of which appears to be that she forgets to reset the alarm clock when she gets up before he does in the morning. It drags on and on and on and Dennis Quaid never once takes his shirt off, though Stephen Dorff does, frequently, which Sharon Stone finds charming even though Dale continues to be all sweaty and menacing about his aggressive near nudity, even though her budding teenage daughter is running around in a bikini right under Dale’s beady little eyes.

Ugh.

But none of that is sinister in the way that a suspense movie about a big old house and the former resident who still feels possessive of it should be — it’s about characters being dumb and filmmakers setting up the audience for a finale that’s supposed to be surprising but is entirely inevitable and predictable. What could have been a story about an emotionally haunted house — and the emotionally haunted family that once lived there — instead turns out, after an hour and a half of not much of anything, to culminate in half an hour of doors rattling in the wind and flashes of spooky lightning and slashed tires and cut phone lines and people declaiming through gritted teeth, “This is my house!” and Cooper and Leah acting so stupidly that even though we’re invited to see their pure-dumb-luck escape at the end as some sort of triumph, you just want to smack them.


MPAA: rated R for violence, language and some sexuality

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

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