Universal // 2005 // 104 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // October 11th, 2007
"But I heard it can't hurt you. It can't hurt you if you don't
"Then I suggest you leave that house before you do."
If you're looking for an honest-to-goodness supernatural yarn, The Skeleton Key is just the film to suit you. It's not remarkable in its telling, mind you, yet it's not without merit if you accept it for what it is. It's clammy, creepy, and sometimes claustrophobic excursion into the realm of backwoods Louisiana hoodoo, that practice of magic and conjuring that just might transgress the temporal consciousness we so desperately cling to. If you're willing to sit a spell and give in to its relatively simple narrative, chances are you'll find you've been appropriately spooked by the time it's over.
And, you have to believe...
Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson, Raising Helen) has become utterly disenchanted with her nursing work at the local hospital, this after learning so many terminal patients have gone unwanted by family and, therefore, entirely disposable by the hospital administration. Seeking work where she can have a positive impact on those destined to depart, she takes up a hospice position in the deep Louisiana bayou. Answering the ad placed by the Devereaux household, Caroline meets up with Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands, Silent Cries), a mistrusting woman who fears the 25-year-old is completely unsuited to care for her ailing husband, Ben Devereaux (John Hurt, Hellboy). Something's wrong with the mute and bed-ridden Ben -- he seems terrified and his panicked eyes seem to call out to Caroline for help. Although Caroline initially believed Ben to be appropriately fearful of his oncoming demise, she stumbles into a hidden room in the attic, gaining access with the skeleton key given her by the mysterious Violet. When Caroline stumbles upon the hidden room full of dreadful remnants and bone-chilling black magic artifacts, she begins to investigate the possibility that Ben believes a spell has been cast upon him. She seeks out legal help from Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard, Flightplan) to determine if Violet has become caught up in some sort of conjuring rituals that are having a debilitating effect on Ben.
Of course, to get the help she needs, Caroline will need to make Luke and others believe in such things while also determining if she believes in hoodoo herself.
There's not too much to say about The Skeleton Key -- neither significantly good nor terribly bad -- save for the fact that it's an enjoyable watch that pleasingly entertains much along the lines of an old Night Gallery episode or, more up to date, an installment of Masters of Horror, sans any gore. The script by Ehren Kruger (The Ring) is deliberate and methodical, choosing to spin a yarn in deference to unleashing a staccato barrage of shock and sensory assault. The result is quite pleasing as it all wraps with a compelling twist ending.
Kate Hudson is admirable in her performance as the plucky yet uncertain Caroline while Gene Rowlands turns in an excellent performance of the distrustful Violet. Peter Sarsgaard comes off appropriately charming yet smarmy, causing us a requisite level of distrust in his character's intentions, too. John Hurt is saddled with delivering a performance as the beleaguered Ben without opportunity to speak any lines (well, a few choked utterances, ultimately) and, in that regard, his presence seems wasted here. He's good but we know there is so much more an actor of his pedigree could deliver.
Now on HD DVD, The Skeleton Key unlocks a vividly detailed setting for us to slog through. The 2.35:1 widescreen image is buffeted by a crisp 1080p/VC-1 encode. You'll practically smell the dank dread of the swamplands, vegetation swing and swaying with incredible realism. The color palette is rather diffused but this is certainly by way of the deliberate production design rather than with any shortcomings of the color saturation. Shadow detail is particularly notable, details easily seen despite the abundance of dark settings. The audio is suitable in a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix that provides just the right amount of ambient effects to further establish the claustrophobic setting. As for extras, there are plenty, including an informative commentary from Director Iain Softley (K-PAX), followed by an uneven nine-part documentary, Behind the Locked Door: Making The Skeleton Key, that includes segments that discuss the nature and origins of hoodoo, a few minutes of notes about casting the film, and some rather silly ghost stories and such relayed by Hudson, Rowlands, and Hurt. Perhaps the silliest of the bonus features is the segment where we rap through a recipe for the perfect gumbo.
As fun as the film is, especially given its unique ending, it's difficult to get drawn in at first since it seems to get bogged down as the stage is being set. Expect to wade through a good 40 minutes before you can truly get a feel for what's happening and why you should care. On the other hand, kudos should be awarded to Screenwriter Kruger for resisting the temptation to toss in an immediate thrill or shock that typically acts as a meaningless throwaway within a genre picture such as this. He's confident in his storytelling and seems to simply ask that you stick with it (and you'll be rewarded if you do).
Not the best thriller but certainly not the worst. If you find yourself looking out the window at a blustery or even rainy day, plug this one in and curl up under a blanket for a couple of hours of fun.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director's Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Nine-part Documentary: "Behind the Locked Door: Making The Skeleton Key"
* Featurette: "Recipe and Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo"
* Official Site