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October 6, 2003

Dennis and Sharon to Dorff: Won't you be my neighbor?

Snakes! If I had to summarize Cold Creek Manor in just one word, that word would be "snakes." Not "good," not "lousy," just…snakes.

Luckily, I have 800 words, so I can tell you that while this is a pretty generic action-thriller, there is one terrifying sequence that is worth the cost of admission alone. Not to give too much away, but it involves snakes—a lot of them—hidden in the house, popping out from places you wouldn't necessarily expect, even in a suspense movie.

Do I need to mention that I yelped so loudly the couple a few rows behind me started to laugh?

Unfortunately, once we move past the reptilian front, there isn't much else to report. Dennis Quaid gives a fine performance, but he's far from Far From Heaven.

Juliette Lewis plays the same type of character she's played in, oh, the last 20movies she's done. Remember her in Natural Born Killers, when that character seemed so fresh and new? Now Lewis seems content to phone in every performance as Mallory Knox minus the homicidal tendencies.

The real standout here is Sharon Stone, but she isn't given that much to do.

Memo to Sharon: Good to have you back! You shunned the Demi Moore route by choosing a relatively low-profile movie as your comeback vehicle. Your agent may have disagreed with you at the time, but after the fiasco that was Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle, you're looking pretty smart. The roles in which we love you, though, are like your sexually voracious femme fatale in Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct—seductive, uncompromising, and just a little bit deadly. Here's a rule of thumb: anything they offer to Kim Cattrall, you can and should take. You did TV, too, dammit!

Before seeing the movie, I saw an interview with Stephen Dorff. Dorff, who plays the film's condescending caricature of a "small-town guy," said that this is the best film he's ever done. Since this is someone whose recent filmography includes Deuces Wild and Fear Dot Com, that should give you an idea of what to expect. Cold Creek Manor isn't a bad movie, really, just something that should probably be rented at the end of a long workweek, when you're too tired to do anything else but watch the good guys and bad guys go through the motions.

The movie's idea of character development is to have a surly teenage girl suddenly turn into a model daughter just because someone takes away her cell phone and gives her a pony. There's also a minor subplot about marital infidelity, but that takes up—I kid you not—only three scenes. We see the indecent proposal (hey, there's another movie you could rent!), the confrontation between the husband and wife, and a reconciliation that's inevitable because of the machinations of the plot. There's no brooding, no remorse—not even a very dramatic apology. I guess when your neighbor is a maniac who's trying to butcher your kids, it's pretty easy to forgive your wife for deciding to sleep with a business associate. That's all right, honey, as long as you're not trying to kill me.

The movie plays like something you might see on Unsolved Mysteries. This isn't a whodunit, though, because once Dennis Quaid starts sleuthing around, there's really no doubt about who's to blame. What bothers me is that the audience is invited to hate the new neighbors before they've even done anything remotely criminal. Sure, chewing with your mouth open and smacking your lips, as Stephen Dorff does during a family dinner, is rude, but a compassionate person would not feel as much contempt as the family members do while they watch him.

Thankfully, the part with the snakes came shortly after that scene, and all was momentarily forgotten, if not forgiven. That's when the family should have started being inhospitable toward its new neighbor.

From the introduction of the suspicious townspeople to the climactic rooftop sequence, the movie fails to distinguish itself from any other film since the ‘70s that features a family in peril. But you know how romantic comedy aficionados turn up in hordes for the latest Meg Ryan feature, knowing Kate & Leopold isn't going to be that much better than You've Got Mail and simply not caring? I think audiences are starting to expect the same similarity in thrillers, which means thrillers are becoming the cinematic equivalent of comfort food—weird, since that's the very opposite of "thrilling."

There's something to be said for comfort food, however. In the great smorgasbord of film, Cold Creek Manor is nowhere near gourmet. It's not even McDonald's. It's more like that Kraft macaroni and cheese you eat in the confines of your own home: simple & cheap, it provides a quick fix, especially if you're afraid of snakes.