In the first part of his career, Mike Figgis made mainstream movies, even if they often had more of an edge than most. His best-known film, “Leaving Las Vegas,” was the most obvious example, but “Internal Affairs” and his lovely remake of “The Browning Version” are others. In recent years, though, Figgis moved more and more into experimental territory, with results that were either interesting failures (“Time Code”) or utter catastrophes (“The Loss of Sexual Innocence,” “Hotel”). With his new picture he takes another 180-degree turn; “Cold Creek Manor” is the most conventional movie he’s ever made. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the worst–which is really saying something when you consider how lousy “Innocence” and “Hotel” were. It’s sort of a geriatric version of “Friday the 13th,” a picture that, thirty years ago, might have been one of those horrible ABC movies of the week that were supposed to be scary but were merely dull.
“Manor” is basically a family-in-peril picture–not a single-mom-and-a-daughter peril picture like “Panic Room,” but a full nuclear family version, akin to “Cape Fear.” But it’s far inferior to either J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 “Cape,” in which Robert Mitchum made a truly terrifying villain, or Martin Scorsese’s 1991 retread, in which Robert De Niro tried but failed to match him. Here Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone play Cooper and Leah Tilson, a fairly well-off New York City couple (she’s some sort of executive, he’s a documentary filmmaker) who decide to sell their urban pad and move upstate to provide a calmer, safer atmosphere for their children, teen Kristen (Kristen Stewart) and younger bro Jesse (Ryan Wilson). For some unfathomable reason they decide to buy the titular mansion, a dilapidated joint that’s abandoned but, in the unlikely fashion typical of such spooky old places in bad movies, still filled with stuff. For a while it looks as though the movie is going to turn into some sort of supernatural “Turn of the Screw”-style potboiler, as Jesse grows fascinated by the camouflage gear left behind by the boy who used to live there; but that plot thread is abruptly dropped when the slickly menacing former owner shows up. He’s Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff), last in the long line of a family that had inhabited the place for years–turns out it had been a sheep farm (though how the heavily-forested area could have served that function is unclear). He’d been in prison for several years, convicted of manslaughter after killing somebody in a car accident, and his misfortune had caused the bank to repossess the house and sell it. Now Massie insinuates himself into the Tilson homestead as a handyman, offering a plea that’s half sob story and half threat, and milquetoast Cooper hasn’t the guts to refuse. But soon it becomes clear that Massie’s a violent nutcase out to scare the new residents out of what he still considers his place (using snakes in one elaborate but risible scene), and before long he and Cooper have become bitter enemies. Meanwhile the latter begins investigating what might really have happened to Dale’s wife and kids, who supposedly had left him–a loss that led to the fatal accident Dale was judged guilty of causing. There’s a big final showdown, of course, involving a pit called the Devil’s Mouth and a rain-soaked roof: you get the idea of what to expect.
The problem with Richard Jeffries’ script is that it offers absolutely no surprises; Massie is clearly a wacko from the moment he appears, and when he informs Cooper of the function of the strange implements hanging on the wall of the old den (they’re hammers designed to kill sheep at one blow) you already foresee how they’re going to be employed before the picture is over. “Cape Fear” wasn’t much more inventive in that regard, to be sure, but both versions carried far greater punch than this crummy copy, which is more along the miserable lines of Wesley Strick’s 1995 “The Tie That Binds,” in which hapless Vincent Spano and Moira Kelly were stalked by Keith Carradine and Daryl Hannah. Quaid and Stone have different responses to the dreadful material they’re handed. He adopts a deer-in-the-headlights treatment of his role, fidgeting and fussing so much that he seems perpetually on the verge of a breakdown. She, on the other hand, remains stiff and rigid throughout, even when she’s being pelted with rain in the obligatory damp, dark denouement. As for Dorff, he just sails around smiling grimly and snarling on cue; though he’s actually a pretty good actor, the only thing he proves is that he’s no Robert Mitchum. Juliette Lewis, looking wan and disheveled, plays a local waitress determined to be Dale’s combination sex kitten and punching bag; it’s an awful part, and she plays it as though she were zonked out on drugs, which is as sensible an approach as any. Stewart and Wilson make a personable pair of kids, even though she takes the surly teenager bit too far on occasion. The only major cast member who comes through the mess almost unscathed is Christopher Plummer, playing Dale’s nasty bedridden father. It’s not that his performance is any good–to the contrary, it’s appallingly hammy. But Plummer can take solace in the fact that, with a white beard to obscure his features, he’s virtually unrecognizable.
As for Figgis, he seems to have totally lost his touch for this sort of thing. He resorts repeatedly to the hoariest of scare tricks–flashing lights, sudden bumps in the night, bursts of violence–and they all come across as desperate rather than frightening, and poorly staged to boot. (Declan Quinn’s murky night-time photography is no help, either, and the occasional use of hand-held shots muddies things up even more.) Figgis also composed the score, which is almost bad enough to divert attention from the failings of his direction; the clattering piano rolls at moments of supposed high tension are especially funny.
Which raises the question of whether “Cold Creek Manor” is designed to be a joke–a solemn-faced send-up of the family-in-peril movie. If you wanted to be charitable, you could opine that Figgis intended the picture to be an over-the-top satire of genre convention, the way John McNaughton’s wickedly amusing “Wild Things” (1998) was–that’s certainly the only way one could get any joy out of a picture as floridly awful as this one. But I fear you’d be kidding yourself; this “Manor” is just seriously bad.