2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
After years of creating films that defied the big-studio cookie cutter, such as "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Timecode," maverick director Mike Figgis makes his most unpredictable move yet, shooting a conventional, predictable thriller.
"Cold Creek Manor" features Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid as the Tilsons, a married couple who leave the city after one of their two children nearly dies in a car accident. But the "quiet" country isn't such a peaceful retreat when volatile ex-con Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff) comes to seek work at his former family home, Cold Creek Manor.
Marketed as a spookfest by Touchstone Pictures, Figgis's film skates a supernatural line, never promising, but hinting at, ghostly infestation. The director uses this tension to suck us in, carrying us through a carefully constructed first act full of eerie child rhymes about "Hammerhand" coming to "throw you down the devil's throat." "Cold Creek Manor" possesses almost all the hallmarks of a horror movie. Moss-covered, cobweb-laced mansions have long been a staple of terror tales. Figgis fills his manor up quickly, bending the camera around dark doorways and dusty rooms as the Tilsons make it their home.
It's here that Figgis gets issue-oriented. All good horror films are part social commentary, and while most slasher flicks coast on an undercurrent of teen angst surrounding acceptance and sexuality, thrillers are propelled by the concerns of an older set. "Cold Creek Manor" deals with rural gentrification. As small towns die, new money comes in from the city to restore houses for second family homes or midlife relocations. In Figgis's vision, the feared clash with locals boils to the surface, especially in the town café, where Dale accuses Cooper Tilson (Quaid) of buying the property out from under him while he was in jail. When filmmaker Cooper decides to create a documentary about his new home's history, Dale feels as if his house and even his own life have been trespassed. The Tilsons discover that "hell is other people" (as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote) when Dale becomes more violent and vindictive.
What separates "Cold Creek Manor" from other chillers is Figgis's artful direction - watch as the manor comes into focus through a spider web strung between flowers - and a firmly planted sense of story reality. Very few scenes invoke the audience's knee-jerk reaction of "don't go in there!"
The Tilsons are smart, logical people and act accordingly - as we hope we might act in similar situations. Figgis's reality-based narrative bonds us to his characters and their actions, and his actors deliver meaty, grounded performances. At the first sign of danger, Cooper sends his wife and kids far away from it. No one decides to take a shower when the lights go out, no one checks the back yard alone. Even when the Tilsons need to investigate a dark crevasse, they don't charge in with a flashlight that constantly blinks out. They send a video camera on a rope.
The result is a logical, emotionally resonant thriller. True, there might be fewer actual scares. (In fact there is one ridiculous, manufactured sequence in which snakes seem to simultaneously attack each member of the family in different rooms.) But Figgis takes no cheap shots, uses no spiked-volume soundtrack to make us jump. Perhaps he proves his unconventionality with "Cold Creek Manor" after all, creating a thriller without resorting to the genre's usual bag of tricks. It's a noble attempt, although Figgis could have ratcheted up the stakes and scares by at least cutting open the bag before discarding it.
"Cold Creek Manor"
Directed by Mike Figgis; written by Richard Jefferies; photographed by Declan Quinn; production design by Leslie Dilley; edited by Dylan Tichenor; produced by Figgis, Annie Stewart. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 19. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: R (violence, language and some sexuality).
Cooper Tilson - Dennis Quaid
Leah Tilson - Sharon Stone
Dale Massie - Stephen Dorff
Ruby - Juliette Lewis
Mr. Massie - Christopher Plummer