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The Skeleton Key (2005)

  Directed by: Iain Softley
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Kate Hudson, John Hurt, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard
Links: The Skeleton Key on the IMDb, Official site, Buy on DVD, Buy on Video
Genre: Suspense/Horror/Thriller

This movie gets: 6.00 (1 rating)
nofreelist.com Ranking: not yet ranked (awaiting 2 ratings)

"A bit of a waste" - a review by andy-j

Miss Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a sensible and mature young lady, in need of some hours in the nursing industry as a part of her training program. She accepts a job as a home carer for a stroke victim, Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), despite his wife Violet's (Gena Rowlands) animosity towards her. Ben is partially paralysed and unable to speak, and only has a few months of his life left. But Caroline feels a strong duty of care towards him, as the neglect she showed her sick father meant she never got to say goodbye to him. Violet gives her a skeleton key to the house, which unlocks every door, except for one that she discovers, hidden away in the attic. What spooky secrets are hidden behind that door? Caroline soon finds herself surrounded by an ancient form of witchcraft, known as Hoodoo. It seems that this house has a very strong tie with Hoodoo. It was once home to a powerful witch doctor and his wife, both of whom were burned to death for their beliefs and practices. Does their magic live on somehow?

You'd be forgiven for thinking that The Skeleton Key sounds like a pretty generic supernatural thriller. Don't let the plot summary or the title fool you though. The Skeleton Key is a cut above the likes of recent Hollywood efforts such as House of Wax (2005) and The Amityville Horror (2005). It doesn't rely on the cheap scares generated by having half a dozen half-baked and half-naked characters running around screaming in the darkness and getting whacked one-by-one by some unidentified force. The Skeleton Key instead builds up the characters, gives us some backstory, then slowly lets the suspense unfold in such a way that we are rarely meant to be frightened or on-edge. It's more like the story is slowly brought to the boil. It gives the audience a bit of respect. Having said that, in order to keep things somewhat interesting while we wait for the climax, there are a few moments of panic thrown in there. Although I can see why this was done, it generally adds very little to the film as a whole. Looking back over the film, these edge-of-your-seat moments actually feel out of place. In fact, if this film were a little more developed and better structured, we may have been able to avoid them altogether.

These and other elements of this film (such as the title) are obviously designed to make it a horror, but this unfortunately ends up dumbing it all down and stifling the great potential that The Skeleton Key has as a psychological thriller. Hoodoo is harmful to someone who believes in it, so in order for Caroline to be affected by it, she first has to be convinced it is real. I think that the filmmakers would have done better to have focused on and built up this theme, watching Caroline's fears slowly escalate without her realising what is happening. This approach has depth and is grounded in reality, and this experience of fear is something that the audience can connect with. The experience of being chased around by some stupid supernatural force, on the other hand, isn't.

The payoff to this film is clever. I certainly didn't see it coming, and I wasn't short on theories either. The whole climax which leads up to it, though, is just a big game of hide and seek with knives and shotguns. Could have done without it really. Remember the climax in The Others? That still sends shivers up my spine, and it is because it doesn't play such drawn-out silly games with the audience. The Skeleton Key could have easily done the same thing, as it really has all the ingredients set out in front of it.

Unfortunately, in the end, The Skeleton Key is way too big for the box that writer Ehren Kruger tried to squeeze it into. It features a great cast - Kate Hudson injects some unexpected maturity and depth into Caroline, and Gena Rowlands, as Violet, plays her role very effectively. John Hurt, as her paralysed husband, does some great work, despite (or because of) Ben's disability. The characters are all rather good, the movie is well-directed, and it doesn't totally fall into many of the traps that make so many supernatural horrors such a yawnfest. What a shame it wasn't written to capitalise on its potential!

andy-j gives this movie 6 out of 10.
Review created on Tue 1 Nov 2005

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