Chilling suspense thriller turns on courtly notes of discord between the talented Kate Hudson as Caroline, a New Orleans hospice worker, and the extraordinary Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux, the matron of the decrepit Louisiana mansion where Caroline tends for Violet’s stroke victim husband Ben (John Hurt). Caroline soon discovers that the mansion is haunted by a pair of century-old spirits of slaves who met their violent demise on the property.
The Skeleton Key is an entertaining ghost story with enough of a clever hook ending to give audiences a chilling surprise. Cinematographer Dan Mindel (Enemy Of The State) adds tremendously to the film’s gothic atmosphere of brooding terror.
The Skeleton Key is a classic gothic ghost story steeped in Hollywood ‘50s sensibilities of thriller narrative plotting. EScreenwriter Ehren Kruger constructs a straightforward suspense plotline with a parlor-style formula that allows for only a smattering of supernatural occurrences and only hint of grotesquerie.
Hurt gives a mainly silent and all-too convincing performance as a desperate old man attempting to escape his certain doom at the hand of the evil Violet. Ben’s
inability to speak intensifies his uncomfortable relationship with Caroline and gives the movie an added layer of gothic creepiness.
Violet, a hoodoo-practicing sorceress, endorses the film’s title when she gives Caroline a skeleton key that fits all 30 rooms in the enormous plantation house. It’s a safe guess that Caroline acts as Violet expects when she searches through the mansion’s hidden attic where she covets hoodoo (similar to voodoo) belongings that include an LP recording of former house slave Papa Justify evoking a “sacrifice” spell. Discreetly placed flashback images coincide with the photos and objects to gratuitously feed the audience with backstory exposition. A lack of mirrors throughout the house sends whispers of a possible vampire lurking about the swamp-neighboring house.
The element of belief holds a special place in the story as Violet and Caroline openly agree that the mysticism of the house can only affect those who believe in it. Hudson (Dr. T and The Women) maps out her character’s demands when she abruptly changes her career because she’s sick of seeing hospital patients treated like baggage. Caroline is a 25-year-old daredevil who imparts on a personal dare and is seduced into believing in the evil that she is at once repulsed by and attracted to.
The chance to see the fantastic Rowlands on the big screen is an opportunity that sadly will not always be available to us and should be savored as such. Rowland’s Violet is a sinister woman of deceit who sets a trap that Caroline perfectly walks into like a baby mouse caught in a tarantula’s web. In early scenes it’s difficult to place the Rowlands of even her recent work in The Notebook (2004). This incantation of womanly mischief inhabits a dank and swampy New Orleans homestead that offers her the next best thing to eternal youth.
Just as Caroline must believe in the magic that she professes to be immune to, the audience is seduced into believing in the three-way power play between Violet, Ben and Caroline. The ensemble of gifted actors compensates for the script’s wobbly plot pacing by simultane
ously intensifying their performances to steady the film’s pitch. Although not an ideal showcase for the likes of Gena Rowlands, Kate Hudson and John Hurt, the actors are afforded ample room to flesh out their volatile char
acters in full voice.
Director Iain Softley ultimately keeps The Skeleton Key at a too-even tempo that precipitates a lag before the third act payoff. The director of such flabby movies as K-Pax and
Backbeat remains unable to make his stories turn on hard angles or unforeseen momentum.
The Skeleton Key is nevertheless an enjoyable impressionistic suspense movie that delivers a welcome plot twist in its denouement that compensates somewhat for the film’s pacing problems. However, the main reason to see it is to see Gena Rowlands at the height of her powers playing against the worthy Kate Hudson. These women’s hidden charms are very easy to see. MTW