The Skeleton Key
Director : s Iain Softley
Screenplay : Ehren Kruger
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Kate Hudson (Caroline Ellis), Gena Rowlands (Violet Devereaux), John Hurt (Ben Devereaux), Peter Sarsgaard (Luke), Joy Bryant (Jill), Maxine Barnett (Mama Cynthia), Ronald McCall (Papa Justify), Fahnlohnee Harris (Hallie), Marion Zinser (Bayou Woman)
The Skeleton Key is set deep in the stagnant bayous of Louisiana, which along with the dusty backroads of Texas, is one of the few American locations that can immediately and without question conjure up menace and dread all by itself. Like Transylvania in the 19th century, these places have that effect because they are old; there is a sense that modernity hasn't completely caught up with them yet and erased everything that came before. Especially in today's fast-paced, constantly updated world of technology and convenience, anything that is old is immediately suspect.
And The Skeleton Key is filled with old things. Its main setting is a decaying mansion on a swampy plantation that is filled with decrepit antiques and moldering artifacts hidden away in secret rooms in the attic. The mansion is owned by an elderly couple, Violet and Ben Devereaux (Gena Rowlands and John Hurt), who have lived there for decades. Ben has recently had a stroke, which has left him physically incapacitated and unable to speak. At the behest of her estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), Violet agrees to hire a hospice worker to take care of Ben because it is more than she can handle by herself.
They hire Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a 25-year-old nurse-in-training whose guilt about the death of her own father drives her to help others. There are plenty of warning signs that she shouldn't get involved with the Deveraux family -- the creepy mansion would be enough to drive off most people, not to mention Violet's mutterings about how Caroline won't "understand the house" and the fact that she is not the first hospice worker to fill the position.
However, those signs are not enough, and Caroline takes the position. Once she starts working with Ben, she immediately sees that something is clearly not right. Even though he can't talk, Ben is constantly trying to communicate with her, mostly with his eyes, which are terrified and pleading. He wants her to help him, but she doesn't know what he wants or what he's afraid of.
The latter is soon answered when Caroline stumbles across the house's secret, namely a hidden room in the attic that is filled with dusty objects used in hoodoo rituals. As one character explains, hoodoo is not the same as voodoo, which is a religion; rather, hoodo is a folk mix of superstition and magical rituals that intertwine African rites, American mythology, and Native American lore. Caroline convinces Violet to explain the history of the house, which involves a pair of turn-of-the-century black servants named Papa Justify and Mama Cynthia who ran afoul of the house's cruel owners and whose spirits now haunt it. The undercurrent of racial tensions in the film burst through the surface at various points, particularly in the retelling of Justify and Cynthia's grotesque fiery demise, but those who would accuse the film of being racist (either casually or overtly) have completely missed the racial subversiveness of the ending.
Although Caroline does not believe in hoodoo or ghosts, she is determined all the same to help Ben, whose beliefs she is convinced are at the root of his physical ailments. There is a lot of talk about the idea that hoodoo is only effective if someone believes in it; otherwise, it has no power. Thus, the film engages the push-and-pull between supposedly rational science and irrational spirituality; old Ben and Violet believe in ghosts and magic rites, while the young, hip Caroline refutes such claims with words like "psychosomatic."
This is an old tradition in occult horror movies, described by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws as the "White Science/Black Magic" opposition. The Skeleton Key follows through on the traditional path of showing science's limits in the face of the unknown and the need for the hero(ine) to convert, as it were, to a belief in the supernatural. The casting of a young woman as the representative of "White Science" is an atypical gender reversal, although the lesson at the end is ultimately the same. However, the film diverges intriguingly from the genre standard, as Caroline's acceptance of hoodoo's validity turns out to be the worst possible decision.
The notion of belief in the seemingly irrational seems to be a pet interest of director Iain Softely, as it was also the central theme of his last film, 2001's K-PAX, in which Kevin Spacey played a mental patient who may or may not be an extraterrestrial. In this sense, the screenplay by genre specialist Ehren Kruger was made to order for Softley, who also shows a good sense of how to use an atmosphere of decay and dread, even if he relies a little too heavily at times on false scares. Kruger's screenplay is a fairly tight piece of work in which the various scenes build steadily toward a series of surprises in the film's final third, ending on a genuinely unexpected note. However, unlike so many twist endings in recent horror movies, this one doesn't feel particularly strained or tacked on.
The film is aided substantially by good performances all around, starting with Kate Hudson, who drops the perky cuteness that had been wearing thin in her romantic comedies and instead takes on a more complex character who shines in her genuine desire to help others, but is constantly shadowed by her own guilt and remorse. The great Gena Rowlands plays Violet at just the right level, suggesting constant menace without fully giving away whether or not she is a real threat. And John Hurt, despite not saying a word, is the film's backbone, his haggard face and wild eyes conveying what is the essence of horror movies: the unsettling sense that something is desperately wrong without being able to say exactly what that something is.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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