This film’s title alone summons the gothic tradition. These are stories classically set in remote family mansions fallen into decay and strewn with accidental souvenirs of family secrets. Ghosts creak the rotting floorboards and some damsel-in-distress is imperiled by a brooding and mysterious — yet handsome — stranger.
Cold Creek Manor parodies the genre, at times with wry humor. It’s an intelligent thriller with tense moments of suspense. But this film has a secret buried beneath the clichés it mocks. At its core, it’s a drama of two men struggling for manhood.
Even the alarm of the bedside clock seems a threat to Cooper Tilson (Dennis Quaid) and his wife, Leah (Sharon Stone). Leah wears the pants in the family. In one of her best performances since Casino (1995), Stone, true to her name, plays her role with a veiled flintiness.
While his wife is on the verge breaking through the corporate glass ceiling, Cooper is an anxious and less-than-competent Mr. Mom to their two children, Kristen (Kristen Stewart) and Jesse (Ryan Wilson). Cooper works from home producing small documentary films. When Leah’s boss makes an indecent proposal (a promotion to vice president, contingent on her spending the night with him) and their son barely misses being struck by a road-raging motorist, husband and wife agree to flee the perils of the city for the peace of the country.
Of course, the move ends up a leap from the urban frying pan into the flaming secrets of a dilapidated estate called Cold Creek Manor. The place seems as if it were abandoned to rot. Besides the dusty furniture, Cooper discovers a set of strange farming tools and photographs, as well as home movies featuring a family that appears to be a perverse reflection of his own.
Then unkempt but handsome Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff) invites himself to dinner. At the table, Quaid’s Cooper is the picture of distress in Dale’s perilous presence. As the secret horrors of Cold Creek Manor surface (at times with dark, Kubrickian comedy), Cooper must become a man in order to save his home and his family.
Figgis subtly lightens the mood. He and writer Richard Jeffries seem to paraphrase and sometimes parody thrillers from Hitchcock classics to Silence of the Lambs.
For the average thriller-viewer, this is a film with few twists and some obvious setups. But rather than failings, the expected turns are more likely Figgis’ satire of the genre.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.