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.

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Escape From the Snow With SNOWPIERCER (2013)

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Snowpiercer - PosterStreaming Video Review:  SNOWPIERCER (2013)

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Michael Arruda

In the year 2031, the Earth is frozen and all life is dead, except for a group of survivors living on a fast moving train called the Snowpiercer, which travels around the world keeping its passengers alive, the last hope for saving humankind.

But on this train a class system has emerged.  The privileged few live in the front of the train, while crowds of the poor and underprivileged lived crammed in the train’s rear bowels.  This is the premise of SNOWPIERCER, a nail-biting science fiction action movie by Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong.

Like all suppressed classes, the folks in the rear of the train long for a better life, for equality with those in the front.  They are led by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) who has concocted a plan to lead the rebels to freedom.  Advised by the wise elder amongst them, Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and his rebels bide their time, waiting for the right moment to stage their revolt.

And it’s not just a matter of class.  The folks in the rear of the train are treated cruelly and inhumanely.  They are fed grotesque black protein bars, and when they disobey, their limbs are exposed to the frozen outside and then hacked off.  Their children are taken away from them.

Curtis enlists the aid of Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) a drug-addicted escape artist who agrees to help them break through the multiple doors which stand between them and the front of the train on the condition that he be accompanied by a young woman, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).

The rest of the movie follows this group as they attempt to reach the front of the train, battling all obstacles in their way.

SNOWPIERCER is a highly entertaining very exciting movie that plays as smoothly and as riveting as any major Hollywood blockbuster, if not more so.  It’s a shame that this film didn’t enjoy a wider theatrical release.  It’s a keeper.

And for folks who like their futuristic action films dark, SNOWPIERCER truly satisfies.  It’s a hard hitting dreary and ultimately very violent movie.

Writer/director  Joon-Ho Bong has made a highly stylish futuristic action film, and it’s not mindless action, as it’s supported by a strong and creative story.  Bong also wrote and directed the Korean horror movie THE HOST (2006) a film that received a lot of positive buzz but left me underwhelmed.  I enjoyed SNOWPIERCER much better.

Bong co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette.  The story works on multiple levels.  It’s a high octane adventure thriller, as well as being a thought-provoking tale of class warfare.  It also touches upon the apocalyptic theme, something that seems to be increasingly prevalent in stories today, as the story examines how far people stray from their humanity, and how much effort it takes for people to keep it.  Curtis’ background story is a prime example, as the leader of the rebels started as anything but.  He had been reduced to the lowest common denominator of human, choosing to eat his fellow humans, including babies, before experiencing a rebirth as the future leader of his people.

SNOWPIERCER also has quite the cast.  Chris Evans, Captain America himself, is quite good in a role that is a far cry from the all-American superhero he plays in the Marvel superhero movies.  The last thing you’re thinking about watching Chris Evans as Curtis is that he’s the same guy who plays Captain America.  Curtis is a rough brutal character with a dark past and more than enough leadership qualities to go around.  The only question one wonders about is how long will Curtis remain a leader, or will he revert to his former self in the face of overwhelming resistance from the powerful forces embedded in the privileged front of the train.

Kang-ho Song is also very good as Namgoong, the mysterious shady character who offers his valuable assistance but can’t seem to go two minutes without wanting more drugs.  He’s the most interesting character in the movie, mostly because you’re never quite sure what his motivations are.  Ah-sung Ko is just as good as Yona, the young woman who Namgoong won’t let out of his sight, as he’s her personal protector.  She’s also clairvoyant, and her abilities to see what’s about to happen next prove very valuable to the rebellion.

Tilda Swinton is excellent as Mason, the irritating woman who is in charge of the soldiers who deliver food to the masses and punishment to those who break the rules.  Swinton played the icy White Witch in the NARNIA movies, and while she’s less cold here, she’s more annoying.  For most of the film, she’s the face of the privileged class, and she’s wonderfully aggravating.  It’s the type of performance where you’re just dying for her to get her comeuppance.

John Hurt lends his usual solid support as Gilliam, the wise old man who counsels Curtis, and Ed Harris shows up at the end of the film as Wilford, the cocky confident leader of the ruling class.

One drawback to SNOWPIERCER, and I’m not sure if this was just a result of watching this film at home on Netflix as opposed to on the big screen at a movie theater, was that the scenes of the Snowpiercer looked exceedingly cartoonish and CGI-generated.  While it was colorful as can be, it didn’t look all that real.

But other than this, I really enjoyed SNOWPIERCER.  If you like futuristic action films, especially those of a dark nature, then chances are you’ll like SNOWPIERCER.  It also has a stronger story than most.

Many folks considered this one of the best films to come out last year.  I can’t disagree.

Frustrated with all the snow falling this winter?  Take a ride on the SNOWPIERCER. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

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