Skeleton Key, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Skeleton Key is the latest of the new breed of PG-13 "horror" movies that emphasize atmosphere and "boo" moments over gore. This film, which is not a re-make of a Japanese production (as many of these pictures are), maintains an internal logic that allows the viewer to follow the storyline without becoming confused or losing interest. There are weaknesses - the narrative traverses a predictable trajectory, the pacing is uneven, and there are times when the action goes over-the-top. But the heroine is smarter than the average horror movie scream queen and the ending doesn't cheapen proceedings. (Actually, one could argue that the ending is the best thing about The Skeleton Key.)

Ghosts don't play much of a role in The Skeleton Key. They occasionally make appearances around the periphery of the story, but never enter the cross-hairs. This is more about hoodoo/voodoo and other forms of black magic. The scares come from things that go bump in the night rather than from ghostly apparitions making visitations. But these are the bayous of Louisiana, where stranger things can be found than dead men walking.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a Jersey girl who has moved to New Orleans for school. For her, flexible work hours are important, and she finds them as the live-in caregiver for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), an elderly Southern gentleman who has suffered a stroke. Caroline is expected to tend to him twice a day - once in the morning and once at night. Dealing with Ben's old-fashioned wife is a challenge. Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands) doesn't like the idea of someone invading her turf, especially if that someone has "writing on her body" (even if it's where no one can see) and lacks a Southern accent. Because the old house is far enough off the beaten path, the only one who comes to visit is Violet's lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), who becomes Caroline's confidant when she notices strange things happening in the attic.

If one breaks it down, The Skeleton Key is more of a mystery than a horror movie. Caroline is the detective. She follows clues, uncovers evidence, and begins to piece together a bizarre puzzle. Along the way, there are red herrings. And all is revealed - at least the little the viewer will not have guessed by that point - at the end. Key to the narrative is Caroline's character arc as her experiences convert her from a skeptic to a believer. The transformation is handled believably; it doesn't happen too quickly to strain credulity. And it's crucial because hoodoo, at least according to screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Ring 2), works only on those who believe in it.

In picking their lead actress, the filmmakers have gone against type by casting Kate Hudson - she of the 100-watt smile and winsome disposition. Here, she plays "serious" well, and, while no one will confuse Caroline with Sherlock Holmes, she makes the part her own. Gena Rowlands and John Hurt are solid but unremarkable. Hurt has to do most of his acting with his eyes and brows, since Ben's stroke has rendered him unable to speak. So we get a lot of wild-eyed, panicked looks. Peter Sarsgaard doesn't have much to do, although the law of conservation of characters indicates he'll have a part to play before the end credits roll.

If there's a disappointment, it's that directory Iain Softley (K-PAX) fails to exploit the setting. The Skeleton Key is the kind of movie in which you expect the swamps and bayous to take on a life of their own, almost becoming another character. But it never happens. The rural Louisiana landscape is little more than a colorful backdrop. Softley never grasps the kind of overpowering atmosphere that's needed to elevate a motion picture like this. The Skeleton Key delivers its share of cheap scares but never unlocks the door to the creepiness that would have made this is memorable movie-going experience.

Skeleton Key, The (United States, 2005)

Director: Iain Softley
Cast: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Cinematography: Daniel Mindel
Music: Ed Shearmur
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2005-08-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1