IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKELETON KEY (2005)

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skeleton key poster

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.

—Michael 6/8/2017

 

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.

—END—

 

 

 

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Lee, Cushing, and Price Talk Horror

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The following mock interview uses real quotes spoken by horror icons BORIS KARLOFF, BELA LUGOSI, LON CHANEY JR., CHRISTOPHER LEE, PETER CUSHING, and VINCENT PRICE.  The quotes and answers, therefore, are real.

My interview, obviously, is not.

That being said, I hope you will read on as I “interview” these horror stars with questions on their thoughts on horror.

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Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome to a special Halloween column.

Here with me today to discuss horror are six of horror movies’ biggest stars, BORIS KARLOFF, BELA LUGOSI, LON CHANEY JR., CHRISTOPHER LEE, PETER CUSHING, and VINCENT PRICE.  Thank you all for joining me tonight.

Let’s get right to it.  Your thoughts on the horror genre and horror movies.  Boris, we’ll start with you.

BORIS KARLOFF:  Thank you, Michael.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  What does horror mean to you?

BORIS KARLOFF:  Horror means something revolting.

Anybody can show you a pailful of innards. But the object of the roles I played is not to turn your stomach – but merely to make your hair stand on end.

CHRISTOPHER LEE (to Karloff):  You’ve actually said you don’t like the word “horror.”  You’ve said the same thing, Lon.  (Chaney nods).  And I agree with the both of you.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  They said that?

CHRISTOPHER LEE:  Oh yes.  Both Lon and Boris here don’t like the word “horror”. They– like I— go for the French description: “the theatre of the fantastique.”

LON CHANEY JR.:  But on the other hand, nothing is more natural to me than horror.

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Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi

PETER CUSHING:  Strangely enough, I don’t like horror pictures at all. I love to make them because they give pleasure to people, but my favorite types of films are much more subtle than horror.

I like to watch films like BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1957), THE APARTMENT (1960), or lovely musicals.

VINCENT PRICE:  I sometimes feel that I’m impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race. I know this sounds sick, but I love it.

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Peter Cushing and Vincent Price

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Second and final question tonight.  Your thoughts on the roles you have played?

BELA LUGOSI:  Every actor’s greatest ambition is to create his own, definite and original role, a character with which he will always be identified. In my case, that role was Dracula.

And Dracula never ends. I don’t know if I should call it a fortune or a curse, but Dracula ever ends.

CHRISTOPHER LEE:  There are many vampires in the world today – you only have to think of the film business.  (Everyone laughs)

Seriously, though, I’ve always acknowledged my debt to Hammer. I’ve always said I’m very grateful to them. They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well-known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful.

PETER CUSHING:  Agreed.  I mean, who wants to see me as Hamlet? Very few. But millions want to see me as Frankenstein so that’s the one I do.

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing

LON CHANEY JR.:   All the best of the monsters played for sympathy. That goes for my father,myself and all the others. They all won the audience’s sympathy.

The Wolf Man didn’t want to do all those bad things. He was forced into them.

VINCENT PRICE:  I don’t play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.

BORIS KARLOFF:  For me it was pure luck.

You could heave a brick out of the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts. I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  And often that’s really what it comes down to.  Being in the right place at the right time, and of course, being persistent.

Thank you gentlemen, for joining me this evening.

And thank you all for reading!

Happy Halloween!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

The Quotable Cushing: ISLAND OF TERROR (1966)

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Welcome back to The Quotable Cushing, that column where we look at some of Peter Cushing’s most memorable lines in the movies.  Why, you ask?  Because I grew up watching Peter Cushing in the movies, and his performances in horror movies from the 1950s-1970s is a major reason why I write horror fiction today.  I will never stop celebrating the career of Peter Cushing, mostly because I want to share his work with fans, old and new alike.

Today on The Quotable Cushing, we’re looking at a very entertaining science fiction horror movie from the 1960s, ISLAND OF TERROR, a gripping tale of cancer research gone wrong, as mutated creatures that devour human bone run loose on a small island, terrifying its inhabitants.

It’s a fun role for Peter Cushing, as he plays a scientist— of course he does.  It’s a rare thing that he’s not playing a doctor or scientist— named Dr. Stanley who along with the younger and more dashing Dr. West (Edward Judd) tries to figure out a way to stop the creatures.  It’s an enjoyable role because in this rather taut and suspensful thriller by director Terence Fisher, Cushing gets most of the good lines, many of them humorous, which is a good thing since this flick remains tense even today.  In fact, uncharacteristically, Cushing’s Dr. Stanley seems to be cracking jokes at every turn.

Let’s check out some of these lines from ISLAND OF TERROR, screenplay by Edward Andrew Mann and Allan Ramsen.

A lot of the humor stems from Peter Cushing’s Dr. Stanley being very aware of how much danger he and everyone else on the island is in, and how frightening their situation is.  For example, as he and Dr. West return to the building where they first discovered the creatures, specifically the basement of the building, Stanley quips:

DR. STANLEY:  I’m not very keen on going down in that cellar  again.

Another time, Dr. West’s girlfriend  Toni (Carole Gray) protests to Gray about being left alone in the car, a sentiment which Cushing’s Stanley agrees with.  Let’s listen:

DR. WEST:  Toni, you stay in the car.

TONI:  I’m not staying here with all those things running around.

DR. STANLEY:  Oh, let her come. I wouldn’t want to stay out here alone, either. It’s too damn creepy.

island of terror trio

Peter Cushing, Carole Gray, and Edward Judd in ISLAND OF TERROR (1966)

He possesses the same self-awareness in this scene with Drs. West and Landers:

DR. WEST:  Brian, hold it! Come back to the car. If there is something in there, we’d better not get too close until we know what we’re up against.

DR. LANDERS:  What do you think is in there?

DR. WEST:  I don’t know. But let’s not take any unnecessary risks.

DR. STANLEY:  Yes, especially with me!

 

Cushing’s Dr. Stanley also has a very playful side.  Take this sequence, for example, where he gets in this zinger, having some fun with his friend Dr. West and West’s girlfriend Toni.

DR. STANLEY:  What the devil did Napoleon do on that island to keep himself busy?

DR. WEST:  He invented solitaire.

West’s girlfriend Toni then leans into West and says to him in sultry voice.

TONI:  I’ve a much better game in mind.

To which Dr. Stanley quips with a sly grin:

DR. STANLEY:  Can three play?

 

At another point, after being treated for his injuries, Stanley has this to say:

DR. STANLEY:  One more transfusion and I’ll be a full-blooded Irishman.

And it’s some injury.  ISLAND OF  TERROR provides Peter Cushing with one of his more memorable on screen moments, when his Dr. Stanley is attacked by one of the creatures on the island, and to save him, his friend Dr. West has to chop off Stanley’s hand, since the bone-sucking creature has a tight grip on Stanley’s wrist.  It’s the most jarring moment in the movie, and as always, Peter Cushing nails it, grimacing and yelping in extreme agony.

And since Dr. Stanley is such a playful fellow in this one, he has this to say to his buddy Dr. West after the amputation:

DR. STANLEY:  Watch it boy, or I’ll sue you for malpractice.

ISLAND OF TERROR is one of the more thrilling horror science fiction movies from the 1960s, a must-see for Peter Cushing fans.  In addition to the memorable lines shared here, there are many more exciting moments in the film.

So, that’s it for now.   I hope you enjoyed this look at Peter Cushing’s memorable lines in ISLAND OF TERROR.  Join me again next time for another installment of THE QUOTABLE CUSHING where we’ll look at other fine quotes from a Peter Cushing movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael