The Skeleton Key

Kate Hudson (right) stars as Caroline with Violet (Gena Rowlands, left) in The Skeleton Key. Photo credit: Merrick Morton, ©2005, Universal Pictures.

I passed on seeing “The Skeleton Key” during its opening weekend and, given the modest box office dollars it generated, I could see that I was not alone in staying home. My rationale was simple: Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter, was recently behind “Ring 2,” which is thus far the worst film I have seen in the theater this year. Though the trailer for “The Skeleton Key” seemed promising I opted not to fork over my hard earned dollars just to wait in vain for something thrilling to happen in yet another listless, flaccid snoozefest. I resigned myself to seeing “The Skeleton Key” as a rental. Even the horrific horror film “Boogeyman” warranted at least a rental, if nothing else.

A strange thing happened after opening weekend as studio-generated buzz seeped into the advertising campaign. Suddenly (and supposedly) everyone was talking about the twist ending for “The Skeleton Key.” For someone riding the fence on whether or not to see this film, I took the bait hook, line, and sinker. Again, my rationale was simple: Ehren Kruger’s debut film, the extremely underrated “Arlington Road,” had a climactic ending that packs a punch similar to that of M. Night Shymalan’s “The Sixth Sense”—both so carefully calculated that they require viewers to replay the film’s entire plot immediately after film has finished. I figured that, if anything, Kruger and director Iain Softley could deliver the goods when it came to creating a twist ending worth waiting for, and to a certain degree they were successful in meeting my rather dubious expectations.

The film stars Kate Hudson as Caroline Ellis, a young woman who has devoted her days to working with terminal hospice patients due to her own feelings of guilt surrounding her father’s death. Her nights are devoted to drinkin’ brewskies and dancing in the same bluesy clubs that all movie characters living in New Orleans frequent (though, to the director’s credit there are no scenes of Mardi Gras).

Disillusioned by the way the dead are so quickly forgotten in her former hospice, Caroline decides to find new employment in a place where she feels a real connection with the person in her care. Unfortunately, that place happens to be a spooky, rotting plantation home with where servants were once lynched for practicing a form of regional black magic called “hoo-doo.” Caroline’s new employers are the Devereauxs, an elderly couple comprised of stroke-afflicted, bed-ridden Ben (John Hurt) and his more-than-just-a-bit eccentric wife, Violet.

Caring for Ben has become too much work for Ms. Devereaux, so their estate lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard) hires on Caroline, and he serves as a buffer between Caroline and the Devereauxs. To make matters more complex, not only is Ben essentially paralyzed from his stroke but he also seemingly in a constant state of fear, he looks longingly into Caroline’s eyes and she knows she must stay and determine the reason why Ben seems so afraid.

After Caroline signs on with them, she is given a skeleton key that can open every door in the house—except a secret room in the attic, outside of which Mr. Devereaux had his stroke. Naturally, Caroline later uses a hairpin to pick the lock on this door, and when she finally opens it, it is filled with old, broken dolls, jars with things that resemble internal organs, a bizarre mask or two, old records, and many other things that would convince anyone outside of a horror movie to get the hell out of the house.

Caroline, however, feels compelled to stay, and when she questions Ms. Devereaux about the room, she is treated to a story about the lynching of two former hoo-doo practicing servants, Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, who worked in the home in the early 1900’s. This revelation only serves to make Caroline even more curious about hoo-doo, but eventually she also begins to suspect that Mr. Devereaux’s stroke may be the result of a hoo-doo hex placed on him by his cantankerous and unnervingly sly wife. Caroline embarks on a trip into the world of hoo-doo myth and culture, beginning to believe that she can save Ben with some hoo-doo magic of her own doing. Unfortunately, her belief in the magic allows it to work against her, as well—a point driven home by several characters throughout the film.

All of these revelations kick into gear the third act of the film that I so eagerly awaited the all-important twist that I will not spoil, except to say that the ending is almost, but not quite, worth the one-hour-plus of film that precedes it. The twist itself is not that earth-shattering, as it is intriguing yet not totally unpredictable. What works best about it are the implications it holds, and like most twist-endings, the entire film has more depth once the secret has been told—but unfortunately, only after that point. In this case, I do not think the ending was poor or out of place, but I can’t stop feeling as though it just didn’t deliver the pay-off I was hoping for.

The film was not particularly scary, yet it took place in a secluded and ancient home where the mirrors were removed so that ghosts inhabiting the home would not be seen. Normally such an eerie setting would have my imagination on edge for the next scene and the next scare, but they never really came. Not once did I flinch at one of the ear-splitting orchestral cues that were laced within the movie, because those moments were not particularly effective either.

As the film wore on to its conclusion I could not help but think that I was witnessing events unfolding at the world’s least-frightening haunted house; but, due to more than adequate performances given by the cast I never found myself actively disliking the movie. Instead, I was so indifferent and disengaged from the build-up that the impact the ending could have had on me was only miniscule.

To give the benefit of the doubt, I think that “The Skeleton Key” was perhaps marketed incorrectly as a haunted house/ghost/voodoo film. There are no chills or thrills to be found—at least by my count. The overall story is an interesting one worth watching, but if you go into this film in search of scares you may be disappointed.

My verdict: Cheap theater or matinee if you absolutely have to see it in the theater, but probably best seen as a rental.

The Skeleton Key • Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes • MPAA Rating:PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material. • Released by Universal Pictures