Universal // 2005 // 104 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // December 5th, 2005
Caroline Ellis: I saw the room.
Violet Devereaux: What room?
Caroline Ellis: The room you said you've never seen. It's not locked anymore.
The Skeleton Key is your standard silly thriller, but with an excellent cast and plenty of New Orleans atmosphere to spare. It's a Hoodoo tale, which means it features the peculiar magical practices that combine voodoo with Louisiana black arts culled from Tahiti, Native American, and slave superstition. The thing about Hoodoo is it doesn't work unless you believe. Ironically, The Skeleton Key is a movie you have to suspend your disbelief to work. The movie relies on its own Hoodoo spell -- as long as you're willing to be a little bit gullible, it's a lot of fun. If you think too much, the spell is broken.
Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous) is a hospice worker who is frustrated. She feels the professional caregiving industry doesn't really care about people, so she seeks freelance employment offered by a young lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard, Flightplan) at an old Gothic mansion in the Louisiana swamp. She will be caring for a stroke victim named Ben Devereaux (John Hurt, Alien) who can't move or speak. His wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands, The Notebook), seems a little strange, as if she's keeping a secret. She tells Caroline to never go in the attic, but gives her a skeleton key that will open every door in the house. Before the end of the first night Caroline will begin to discover things aren't always what they seem, and believing in superstitions has a price.
The Skeleton Key wants badly to be highly regarded like The Others or The Sixth Sense, and in many ways it starts down the right track. The cast is amazing when you consider how much pedigree and awards Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, and Kate Hudson bring to the screen. They certainly have the chops a thriller needs to pull itself off. And thank goodness director Iian Softley (K-Pax) demanded most of the film be shot on location in Louisiana. This is the kind of Southern Gothic mystery that needs New Orleans and the surrounding swamps to feel authentic. None of it would have worked on a safe, dry studio in Los Angeles. Great cast and spooky locations, the film should have been incredible.
The main problem comes from the predictable script by Ehren Kreuger (Scream 3, The Ring). It builds up to a major climax that never seems to deliver on the promise of the intelligent and spooky hour an a half leading up to it. The film could have been a nice companion to Angel Heart, but instead craps out in the last reel to remind us of the terrible over-the-top ending to What Lies Beneath. The chills and thrills quickly dissolve to an ending so loopy you may find yourself shaking with a giggle fit. The payoff is not what it should be in tone or events, and seems they threw in some twists that are provided purely for the sake of shock.
Some of the extras follow the goofy tone of the climax. We have Gena Rowlands reading a love spell from a book that relies on popsicle sticks, Kate Hudson telling a silly non-related ghost story about Goldie Hawn's haunted London digs, John Hurt reading a poignant yet unrelated story about slaves, and an on-screen lesson in how to make gumbo from a rapper. Who thinks this crap up anyway? I appreciate the effort to round out the disc, but none of this is germane to the movie. It hardly adds to your viewing experience of The Skeleton Key.
Universal does offer some bang for your buck with this release. The transfer is near pristine, and black levels are spot on which is essential for a movie that casts so many shadows. The soundtrack is a nice use of surround, and adds to the malevolent atmosphere with thunder coming at you from around the room. The insightful commentary reveals Iain Softley has done his homework on New Orleans, and he comes off as quite intelligent and well-spoken. There are twenty minutes of deleted scenes with optional director commentary, which prove his prowess in deciding what a thriller needs to cut to keep its mystery afloat. There is a short feature on the difference between voodoo and hoodoo, which illuminates how one is an organized religion, and the other is a ritualistic practice of magic.
With everything that's happened in recent history to New Orleans, The Skeleton Key is a bittersweet affair. I wish it were better simply because it captures a sense of New Orleans that may be gone forever. Yet I have a feeling the swamps out past the causeway have many a ghost story left to tell. The movie is worth recommending on the basis of the looks at the causeway, the Quarter, and other sites before Katrina ravaged them.
So The Skeleton Key may have its flaws, but it also has its charms. A fine cast, a good director, and an atmospheric city almost fight back the bad spirits of a flawed script. The ghosts of New Orleans still have a lot of Hoodoo left in them, and hopefully one day they'll find the right movie to overshadow this one. Still, I don't think the spirits will be too offended if you give the movie a rainy weekend rental.
Just fine, child. Not quite the spookfest I was hoping for, but the actors and atmosphere make up for a less than stellar conclusion. I appreciate the extras, but I can make my own love spells and gumbo. I am making a hoodoo doll for Ehren Kreuger. He better be careful around mirrors from now on.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary with Director
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Director Commentary
* Kate Hudson's Ghost Story
* Gena Rowlands' Love Spell
* John Hurt's Slave Story
* Making of Featurette
* Music Featurette
* How to Make Gumbo Featurette
* Hoodoo vs. Voddoo Featurette
* Official Site
* Hoodoo Site