Next to musicals, psychological thrillers give me the most movie-going pleasure. I revel in the exquisite nerve-wracking tension and excitement evoked by films like Gaslight, Breakdown, Vertigo and With a Friend Like Harry -- no matter how many times I watch them. Despite a couple of storytelling missteps, Cold Creek Manor, with its rich cinematography and fine performances, emerges as another worthy addition to this genre.
Dennis Quaid (The Rookie) plays Cooper Tilson, a documentary filmmaker intrigued by the mystery behind an old country house he and his wife (Sharon Stone) purchased at a ridiculously low price. As the place becomes more and more menacing, the former New Yorkers realize the lives of their entire family are in jeopardy. Why? Because Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff), the previous owner of Cold Creek Manor intends to make them suffer. Then why did Tilson hire Dale as a handyman? While not clear here, the answer probably involves a combination of Tilson's naiveté and guilt, and saying he lives to regret this action is the understatement of the year. Snakes infest the house, a child's pet is killed, and Tilson, with the help of his son (Ryan Wilson) and daughter (Kristen Stewart), uncovers horrifying secrets about what happened to Dale's family before he lost his property. A visit to Dale's bed-ridden father (an unrecognizable Christopher Plummer) convinces Tilson of the danger he faces.
Thanks to Declan Quinn's (In America) superb cinematography, the huge house in Cold Creek Manor comes across like one of the film's characters. As the camera first explores the manor's roomy interior, I became enchanted with its possibilities right along with the Tilsons -- and later thought the refurbished house simply glowed with pride. Then, adding to the suspense as the plot progresses, Cold Creek Manor takes on a dark, sinister look. If there were yearly awards given for the Best Performance by a House, this one would receive my vote for 2003. (Other nominees? Duplex, House of Sand and Fog, and the villa in Under the Tuscan Sun.)
The movie's human actors also deserve kudos. I know it's usually easy to identify with characters played by Quaid, but he faces a special challenge here as Tilson. Fortunately, he succeeded in winning me over -- even though Tilson's actions, such as invading the privacy of others, are decidedly off-putting. Portraying a high-powered businesswoman who believes becoming a "regular homemaker"and moving to the country will help keep her family safe, Stone (The Muse) delivers one of her most down-to-earth performances -- no exaggerated mannerisms, no flamboyant behavior. And she looks fabulous! Dorff (Blade) excels as the Handyman from Hell. Telegraphing hints of worse things to come, his character's obnoxious table manners during an early meal with the Tilsons gave me chills.
Director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) and writer Richard Jefferies (Man of the House) may have erred by not showing what happens to an important supporting character as well as by including an unreasonable scene of terror atop a well. Nevertheless, this movie worked for me. And, after watching the DVD bonus features, I know why Figgis and Jefferies did what they did. It's all about "pacing."
Explaining the elements necessary for a psychological thriller, Figgis tells why he deleted some scenes. He wanted the film to move along without the audience being "ahead of the action." The DVD also includes these deleted scenes along with an alternate ending that wraps things up a little better than the one finally used. Hooray for DVD bonus features! Whether you agree with filmmakers like Figgis or not, it's such a treat to hear them discuss their movies.
(Released by Touchstone Home Entertainment and rated ""R" for violence, language, and some sexuality. DVD bonus material not rated.)