The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on THE SKELETON KEY is a reprint from 2011. John Hurt, who passed away in January, appears in the film in a supporting role.
I first reviewed THE SKELETON KEY (2005) when it was released theatrically in 2005. I liked it then, and I was curious to see how the film would hold up several years later.
THE SKELETON KEY is a Hoodoo tale set in New Orleans. Hoodoo is different from Voodoo, as Hoodoo is African American magic while Voodoo comes from Haiti, but in movie terms, they’re pretty much the same thing: black magic, evil spells, and witchcraft.
Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) accepts a position to care for stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) in his southern home. Devereaux is paralyzed and has lost the ability to speak, and he’s become too much for his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) to care for on her own, and so their lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) hires Caroline.
Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key that supposedly opens every door in the house, but Caroline discovers that the key doesn’t open the door to the attic room. Violet informs Caroline that the room is off limits, and she tells Caroline the tale of how over a hundred years ago the room belonged to two servants who practiced Hoodoo. When they were caught teaching their black magic to the children of the house, they were murdered, but supposedly, their spirits remain in the house.
Caroline begins to believe that Violet isn’t “all there,” and when the mute Ben tries on several occasions to communicate to Caroline, asking for help, apparently fearful of his wife, Caroline concludes that her patient’s life is in danger. She even confides her fears to Ben’s lawyer Luke Marshall, who tells her he can’t believe such a thing, that it doesn’t make sense to him.
Caroline decides that it’s up to her to save Ben from his deranged wife, but as she attempts to rescue him, she discovers there’s more going on inside that attic room then she at first believed. It all leads to a twist ending that is actually better than most.
THE SKELETON KEY is a mildly entertaining story of witchcraft, black magic, and ghosts. The best part about the film is the strong performances by the leads and a well-written plot that doesn’t fall apart in the end.
Kate Hudson is very enjoyable as Caroline. She’s a likeable heroine, a sincere character who you worry about once her life is in danger.
The best performance in the movie though belongs to Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux. She’s extremely believable as the southern woman set in her ways, fearing the ghosts who still live in her house, respecting the Hoodoo magic conjured up by those in the know, and who does not trust the young Caroline in her home. It’s a terrific performance.
Peter Sarsgaard isn’t bad as the lawyer Luke Marshall, and as much as I like John Hurt as an actor, he’s largely wasted here as stroke victim Ben Devereaux. He doesn’t speak, and he barely moves. And no aliens explode from his chest.
THE SKELETON KEY is also a very atmospheric movie. The scenes in and around the mansion give it a strong sense of place. You can almost taste the jambalaya and smell the humidity in the air. Director Iain Softley did a nice job capturing a spooky feel in this movie.
THE SKELETON KEY is definitely “quiet” horror. Ehren Kruger wrote the screenplay, and he keeps things tame and mysterious, as opposed to shocking and in-your-face. The movie does have a pretty decent twist ending, as those things go. Most twist endings I see coming a mile away. Not so, here. Plus, a lot of twist endings seem tacked on, added just to make things different. This twist works because it fits in perfectly with the story.
One thing THE SKELETON KEY is not is scary. It’s not going to give you nightmares, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a successful horror movie. It is.
It reminds me of some of the old Val Lewton horror movies, which were also subtle in the way they depicted horror, films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943). THE SKELETON KEY isn’t as good as these old Lewton classics, but it is similar in mood and tone.
THE SKELETON KEY is not a classic of the genre, but it does tell a good story, and it’s teeming with Hoodoo atmosphere. It also gets better as it goes along and finishes strongly.
As the weather begins to heat up, and the humidity begins to rise, and you’re reaching for that tall glass of sweet iced tea, you might want to pick up THE SKELETON KEY. It’s the perfect complement to a sultry evening.