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Cold Creek Manor

Something you just never hear in a suburban area: "The county could use some new blood." Whenever you hear that phrase spoken in a movie, it should mean that there's going to be blood, lots of it, hopefully spilled by inbred residents of said county that are normally kept chained up in a shed somewhere while the sheriff (Dana Eskelson) smiles grimly watching her boys go to work. For added fun, there might be a house burning behind the scene.

Cold Creek Manor does eventually get around to the burning, sort of, but by the time it does, you might have been willing to set the blaze yourself just to have something, anything, happen. There's a brief promise that a killer stalks the region, a grotesque in the vein of a Clive Barker creature called Hammerhand.

Young Jesse Tilson finds reference to the beast in a scrapbook left behind by Cold Creek Manor's previous family - a crayon-scrawled nightmarish vision with an ominous poem promising victims shoved down the Devil's Throat. For added chills, Jesse even starts dressing in the dead boy's clothes and reciting the poem, but director Mike Figgis and writer Richard Jeffries are clearly too sophisticated to let that be anything other than a kid goofing around.

And by sophisticated, I mean boring.

Despite the possibilities of the supernatural, Cold Creek Manor aims to be a straight-up, rather staid little thriller. The Tilsons have fled New York City to build a better life for their family. Dad Cooper (Dennis Quaid) labors as a low-budget documentary filmmaker, while his wife Leah (Sharon Stone) does something really high-powered in the corporate world, but drops it all because she's always wanted to write a book.

Later, we realize our first glimpse of Leah had much more portent to it, but since Figgis can't be bothered to create subtext (oh, heck, okay, Stone can't play subtext either), it comes as a surprise to everybody. Not that we're really surprised or interested.

The whole film is distanced from its own proceedings, to the point that we really can't care about anybody. In one scene, daughter Kristen (Kristen Stewart) is sullen and hating the fact that she's been moved to Hicksville, U.S.A., and in the very next she has a best friend and her parents have bought her a horse. It's a believable enough bribe, but it's also clear that a lot happened in between scenes.

Some characters do have life to them. Stephen Dorff lurks around the house as its former owner, just out of prison and offering to be the family's handyman. Sure, it's a bad idea, but in the early scenes Dorff has enough charm to make you wonder if Cooper's distrust is all in his head. It might have even been a better movie if it was.

But way too soon, Figgis gives us cold hard evidence that Dorff's family was murdered, not abandoning him as he claims. Not that Cooper picks up on it, but when you have a set of lamb-killing pickhammers in a display case, and one's missing, it's a safe bet that it was used for something bad. When the guy hanging around trying to protect his family's legacy also claims not to know or care where that pickhammer is, he's probably lying.

Then again, Cold Creek Manor is the kind of movie filled with people who have never seen this kind of movie. At every single juncture, every character but Dorff's Dale Massie makes the dumbest choice he or she could possibly make. When Cooper fires Dale, his next act is to go drinking at the pool hall Dale hangs out in.

At least Dale's girlfriend Ruby (Juliette Lewis) has an excuse. She's straight from a white trash paper doll book, living in an airstream trailer and seething with resentment toward anybody who hasn't labored hard for a living. Ruby doesn't cotton to "outsiders," and it's a role that Lewis can play in her sleep by now. And almost does. Unfortunately, she's also starting to look like a drag queen doing a Juliette Lewis impersonation.

Ruby's sister is the aforementioned sheriff, who somehow isn't a local though her sister is. Such details were obviously missed in all the excitement of making a movie, but since none of it translates, you notice these things. Sheriff Ferguson takes the cake of dumb characters, knowing perfectly well that Dale Massie is a violent man, but referring to a near complete set of broken teeth (and retainer) in the driveway and the wrecked car that supposedly took Dale's family somewhere else as "purely circumstantial evidence."

And when the phone goes dead at a key moment, well, that's just a storm coming in.

None of this is spoiler, because it is obvious early on in the film, when the camera pans from the oblivious family to linger on the retainer in the gravel. You keep waiting for the pieces to be put together, or for somebody to actually die on camera. Though it eventually happens, it's almost as dispassionate as the rest of the movie.

However, everybody is obviously doing the best they can. Quaid pulls out the proper expression for each scene, though there's no emotional through-line, and that's more the director's fault than the actor's. (That drinking thing? It might have been part of a larger problem, but it's never mentioned again.) Dorff cries with impotent rage extremely well. And Christopher Plummer slums in this film as Dorff's father, briefly raising the bar in a pair of magnificent scenes, which should have either shamed or inspired Figgis into making the rest of it better.

Instead, we get ham-fisted suspense. In one scene, a character starts to make a discovery, then we cut away somewhere else for a while before returning to the exact same moment. The character isn't that slow, as it's only the task of looking behind a desk. It was just the only thing Figgis could think of to try to get us on the edge of our seats. Believe me, I rooted for that sudden Barkeresque twist for a full forty-five minutes before just slumping down in defeat.

And then Figgis gave us three slow-motion epilogues to underscore the emotion of characters I couldn't care less about. Many, many fingers will be sprained in the sudden flurry of flipping birds in darkened theaters.

Save your finger and go see Underworld instead. At least that movie doesn't pretend to be much.


Derek McCaw

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