In Cold Creek Manor, a family tired of the noise, traffic and crime of the city decides to move to the country.
Documentary filmmaker Cooper Tilson (Dennis Quaid) and his professionally successful wife Leah (Sharon Stone), decide to leave the city when their son, Jesse (Ryan Wilson), is almost hit by a car. The accident is the perfect excuse for Cooper, who serves as primary caretaker of Jesse and daughter Kristen (Kristen Stewart), to take charge and convince his wife to move for the safety of their children. The decision seems like a rash one, given that Jesse is fine; however, there are signs of marital strife as well. Leah constantly travels and Cooper’s work has to take a backseat to parenting.
Leah agrees to give up her lucrative job, which also happens to be the family’s primary source of income. Her motive for leaving is not strictly for the safety of her children. Leah is also anxious to put some distance between herself and a co-worker.
So the Tilsons head to a small town in upstate New York called Bellingham. They purchase an old house located on a sprawling and unkempt piece of property known as Cold Creek Manor. They got an amazing price on the seemingly idyllic fixer-upper. Along with the house itself, the Tilsons inherit all of the personal belongings of the previous owners, the Massie family. While sorting through Massie personal belongings, Cooper comes across multiple generations’ worth of artifacts, pictures and home movies that inspire him to make a documentary about the history of Cold Creek Manor.
Just as they are settling in to their new home, they begin to realize that the house isn’t so dreamy, and the townspeople aren’t so friendly. Also, that seemingly affable stranger, who has ingratiated himself into their lives, has a dark and sinister past.
Also, Cooper is not the only one interested in the former tenants. Jesse discovers some pre-adolescent treasures in a bedroom that belonged to a boy named Grady. Among the toys and clothes, Jesse finds a book of drawings and a poem. A few of the lines are repeated with increasing significance throughout the film:
Hammerhand will find the weak.
Hurl them down to rot and reek.
Bash your skull and toss you in
Your pain is short.
Your blood runs thin.
The strong are spared to breed and spawn.
Graze around the devil’s yawn.
In the midst of their renovations, the previous homeowner, Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff), reappears. An ex-convict who is down on his luck, Dale asks Cooper and Leah for a job. While the entire family initially seems uncomfortable in Dale’s presence, Cooper’s yuppie guilt temporarily outweighs any misgivings, and he offers to let Dale work on the renovations.
As Dale swaggers around the property trying to generate sexual tension with Leah and leering lasciviously at Kristen, Cooper grows increasingly agitated and insecure. Dale is able to undermine his employer because of his familiarity with the property. He is also at ease in the tiny rural town that is unfamiliar to Cooper.
Cooper continues to dig into the Massie family history and discovers that that Dale’s father, Theodore Massie (Christopher Plummer), is still alive. Cooper goes to visit the elder Mr. Massie who is as unsavory as his son and experiencing serious diminished mental acuity. However, his rambling reveals a violent temperament and a lack of respect or affection for his son. Still under the impression that Cold Creek Manor remains a family legacy, Mr. Massie becomes irate when a nurse informs him it has been sold.
When Dale’s attempts to reclaim his home become more aggressive, Cooper grows suspicious and fires him. Soon everybody’s motives are exposed. Leah finally admits her real reason for agreeing to the move; guilt over entertaining the idea of a having a sexual encounter with a co-worker. She also expresses doubt in Cooper’s judgment, “I turned into some 19th-century housewife, which was great for a while,” Leah states. “It felt like the weight was lifted off my shoulders. And you were the one who was supposed to carry us through. But that is not what’s happening. We’re drowning here.”
After Leah’s revelation, Cooper heads to the town bar. Dale’s girlfriend, Ruby (Juliette Lewis) warns Cooper not to mess with Dale. The perceived slights to his manhood, multiple shots of alcohol and Dale’s antagonistic attitude all lead to a verbal confrontation. Not long after, Cooper witnesses firsthand Dale’s violent streak and leaves the bar quickly.
When Dale finds out that Cooper visited his father, the underlying current of hostility and anger finally explodes. Dale humiliates Cooper in front of his family while they are dining at a local restaurant. Dale paints himself as a hapless victim who had no choice but to stand by while Cooper stole his home, “I’m doing my level best to try and be a good neighbor, and you accuse me of being some kind of sadistic prick.” This just reduces Cooper even further in the eyes of the locals, who never liked or trusted him anyway.
Feeling estranged from his family,Cooper makes a gruesome discovery and becomes determined to expose events in Dale’s past that would guarantee his return to jail. Cooper sends Leah and the children back to the city and continues to search for a key piece of evidence linking Dale to a heinous crime.
Dale goes to visit his father who, once he has confirmed the loss of the family farm, begins to sadistically torture his son, “You couldn’t even make babies. You’re not even a man.” Dale’s father has not only witnessed his son’s violent episodes but remembers them as well. Dale’s relationship with his father provides a neat and tidy explanation for Dale’s homicidal behavior.
Leah returns, mysteries are solved and suspicions are confirmed. The movie devolves into a violent showdown. Cooper is finally able to assert himself physically, usurp his manhood by establishing himself as the alpha male and fuse back together his fractured family. Cold Creek Manor never moves outside the confines of an overused plot line and predictable characters. The film fails to evoke any emotion other than fatigue in the viewer.
The bonus features include an alternate ending that leaves no questions regarding the fate of the characters. The alternate ending is more of an extended ending, including a couple of twists and turns which seem entirely plausible after viewing the film. The audience isn’t given the opportunity to interpret what they’ve seen and draw their own conclusions. If director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) had used the alternate ending, it also would have laid firmer groundwork for a possible sequel. It is interesting to see what the film’s writer had in mind regarding the characters’ futures in the aftermath of their entanglements with Dale.
Other bonus features include deleted scenes and a featurette entitled Rules of the Genre. Figgis also explains some of the technical aspects regarding Cooper’s documentary and its importance as it occurs concentrically within the film.