A well off urban family trying to get away from it all occupies a house in the country and incurs the simmering resentment of its downwardly mobile former occupant. This simple plot has been made into a subtle, chilling film that touches on the issues of family dysfunction, class warfare, and the inherent violence of rural life. That film is Larry Fessenden’s 2002 thriller Wendigo.
Perhaps somebody in Hollywood saw it and decided that, with four times the budget, they could improve on the idea by making the threatened family very rich, very good-looking, and very stupid. Cold Creek Manor is the kind of movie dreaded by movie-goers in that it’s populated by lunkheads who, when they’re not preoccupied with inane misunderstandings, hang around next to remote and bottomless pits on stormy evenings while they discuss what to do about the homicidal maniac who’s stalking them.
Dennis Quaid is Cooper Tilson, an alleged documentary filmmaker. Sharon Stone is Leah, his wife, a financial executive of some kind. They have two kids, a sullen girl in her early teens and a little boy whose main function is to run out in New York City traffic and get knocked down by a car so that Cooper and Leah will decide they have to get out of the city.
For the Tilsons, the ideal place to find peace is Cold Creek Manor, a remote, run down country house still littered with the possessions of its previous owner who lost the property when he was unable to keep up the payments. The Tilsons buy the manor for a fraction of what it’s worth and move in. Cooper announces he’s going to make a documentary about the house and to that end sets up a room bristling with expensive computer equipment and carefully catalogued snapshots and documents.
Which brings up a major problem with verisimilitude. Quaid is apparently incapable of conveying the inner life associated with the creative arts. There’s an occasional wildness in his eyes, but it comes across less as the fire of creativity than as the sort of testosterone-induced mania that gets guys like him canned for throwing punches on the shop floor. He’s never shown talking about any of the gossipy details that he’s turned up in his research, and there’s never any spark of pleasurable interest in his glazed, intermittently hostile expression. The viewer must fight the growing suspicion that Cooper is a kept man pretending to be a filmmaker.
This may arouse false hopes in the audience that at some point the facade will crumble and Leah will discover a tape of Cooper intoning over and over again, "All work and no play make Cooper a dull boy." After all, this is a Mike Figgis movie. It can’t be as stupid as it looks.
Sadly, it is, and that’s a real pity, because a suspense film that closely followed a researcher piecing together the unspeakable secrets left behind by an evicted family could have been both gripping and effective. Instead, the screenplay focuses on the menace posed by the displaced Yankee redneck who originally lived in the house and who gains access to the property by offering to help with the renovations.
Stephen Dorff gives a good performance as an obviously injured man who can go from being likeable to threatening to pitiable in seconds, and Juliette Lewis is fine as his trashy, stupidly malicious girlfriend. But their best efforts can’t make up for the fact that the most interesting aspect of the story – the reconstruction of a family’s history through snapshots and old possessions – is ignored in favor of snake infestations, pointless arguments, a car chase, the aforementioned bottomless pit and an extended game of hide-and-seek in the darkened house.
Cold Creek Manor is a potentially good story spoiled by being not just badly but stupidly told. It therefore deserves no quarter.