Movie Review
The Skeleton Key
The Skeleton Key poster
By Scott Sycamore     Published August 19, 2005
US Release: August 12, 2005

Directed by: Iain Softley
Starring: Kate Hudson , Peter Sarsgaard

Running Time: 104 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $47,806,295
{Ehren Kruger's} work really only hits on the surface at best; penetrating insight and deep psychological terror are pretty far removed from his canon.
Here we have another one of those stylish and moody Ehren Kruger-scripted horror flicks. Actually, "horror" would be an iffy word to use describing such work as this; it's more like a mystery with spooky elements. It gets the setting and tone right to a degree, but the frights are a whole different matter. From the opening passages, I could tell that this was going to be lackluster. Something about the way it's shot immediately took me out of the experience and kept me fully conscious that I was only watching a movie. The fact that it's written by Kruger didn't help either; by this point, I know what to expect from the guy. His work really only hits on the surface at best; penetrating insight and deep psychological terror are pretty far removed from his canon.

Kate Hudson (looking as scrumptious as ever) plays Caroline Ellis, an aspiring nurse who lives in New Orleans. She gets a call about a high-paying home caretaker job in the plantation backwoods an hour away. She jumps at it, telling her friend (Joy Bryant) that she "could use a change," and plus the money is way beyond anything else she could make at her current experience level. She drives out to the plant-covered estate and meets Violet and Ben Deveraux (Gena Rowlands and John Hurt), two old whitey southerners who have an appropriately French Creole surname. Ben has been afflicted with a bad stroke and cannot speak or move; it's clear that his time is limited. There is a lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) who hangs about the house sometimes, keeping affairs in order for the distraught Violet. After not too long a time, Caroline realizes that the house is pretty creepy; it is constantly dark and dusty and has an attic with a sealed and locked door. Even after Violet bestows the titular Skeleton Key (which opens any door in the house) upon Caroline, that pesky small attic door won't budge. Caroline eventually gets the door open and discovers the beginning of a dark trail. Magic, murder, and ghosts all play a role in the subsequent unfolding of the story. Where it will lead is anybody's guess.

So I imagine that Kate Hudson is supposed to be a selling point of this film. That's strange, considering she has been in an improbable string of massive flops, all unseen by me (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Alex & Emma, Le Divorce, Raising Helen). I also thought that Almost Famous (C-/D+) was unbearably overrated, and a poor justification of her then-"rising star" status. So basically, she's not a real audience draw at all. She is beautiful, even though I tend to prefer more - ahem - voluptuous women. I enjoyed looking at her on screen, and it made the movie somewhat of a more pleasurable experience - but it didn't make the movie work.

Part of the problem is that Kate's character is just not that likable, despite having the looks that would get most people to automatically sympathize with her (read the studies if you don't believe me). This is odd, considering Hudson's apparent real-life ability to light up a room effortlessly. There's really no depth to her; the back-story is ultra-thin and she never expresses grand emotions. It's not that we want her to get killed or whatnot, it's that we don't really care all that much either way. Indifference is not good in the movies.

The lack of scary material has to be brought up again. This film is in a similar vein as the recent Dark Water (C-) in that it is really a moody drama masquerading as a horror picture. There are a few minor jump moments in Skeleton Key, but they are dropped after a while and don't add up to much. It also doesn't help that these moments are telegraphed by mistimed and inappropriately loud sound cues. Director Iain Softley (and others) should learn that shrill and piercing does not equate to frightening. There's some sense of down-home spookiness with the Hoodoo magic and all, but these elements feel more like a starting point (and a well-worn one at that) than a force that propels the story onwards. A pivotal flashback scene (showing the past of the estate) is a case-in-point: it's thematic and depressing, but not unnerving in the way it really wants to be.

The film tries to build up things and then backs away from them, almost as if it tiptoes away softly, hoping the audience won't notice. Revelations are made a little too early, and the suspense scenes that follow lack the requisite tension. It's not a total bust of a work, though. There is decent cinematography, set design, locations, and acting. But the problem is that all these things are toned-down; the filmmakers apparently trust the plot to carry the film further than it is eventually able to. Skeleton Key doesn't open all the intriguing doors it could, merely the ones that serve its function. There's just too much average stuff in here to recommend it.
Scott's Grade: C+
Scott's Overall Grading: 417 graded movies
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'The Skeleton Key' Articles
  • Lee's review C+
    August 10, 2005    While (it) has a more thought out story than Dark Water, it still suffers from the formulaic trend that so many horror movies have taken to since The Ring. -- Lee Tistaert