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The Skeleton Key (A Movie Review)


Starring Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant, John Hurt, Maxine Barnett, Ronald McCall, Jeryl Prescott Sales, Fahnlohnee Harris, Marion Zinser, Deneen Tyler, Ann Dalrymple, Trula Marcus, Tonya Staten, Tom Uskali, Jen Agpar, Isaach De Bankolé, Christa Thorne and Forrest Landis.

Screenplay by Ehren Kruger.

Directed by Iain Softley.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13.

From the coming attractions trailer for The Skeleton Key, I have to admit I thought the movie was going to be a stylized American version of the Japanese ghost stories that have crowded the multiplexes in recent years – stuff like The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water. While I knew that Skeleton Key was not specifically a remake of an Asian film, I figured it was inspired and styled after these films.

While I had some interest in seeing the movie, I missed the short run in the theaters. Catching up to it a few months later as it makes it to DVD, I find that I could not have been more wrong with my early assumption. The Skeleton Key is actually nothing like those glossy-but-slightly-incoherent haunting tales. Instead, it is a very specifically American tale – a Southern gothic chiller in which the ghosts are something of a mirage.

Instead, this film delves into a much less overused corner of the supernatural; the Cajun black magic called Hoodoo. Hoodoo is a darker, more demonic cousin of voodoo which flourishes in the Louisiana bayous. While the actual hoodoo curses are less scary at first than they could be (they only work if the cursed believes in them), quickly the twists and turns of the plot do become truly chilling.

The story is about Caroline "Cary" Ellis, a northern girl living in New Orleans. She feels guilty about not being home to care for her father when he died, so she has thrown herself into a job as a hospice care worker. Cali girl Kate Hudson does a good job of playing this Jersey-ite out of her element, although she never quite gets the East Coast accent down (she also conspicuously mispronounces her supposed hometown of Hoboken, NJ, accenting the wrong "o" in the city's name.).

When a favorite patient dies and the nursing home which employs Cary seems to see it as just an annoyance, she decides to take a new position deep in the bayous. In this job, she moves to a huge old gothic manor to help an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) nurse her husband (John Hurt) who has been incapacitated by a stroke. She is hired by a cute and extremely helpful lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) who also seems to have romantic attentions for the young nurse.

The longer that Cary lives in the home, the more convinced she becomes that the wife is somehow hurting the husband. Also, while snooping around the huge old plantation, she learns of the place's tragic past – many years earlier a hoodoo priest and his wife who were working as servants were lynched by an angry mob.

At first, Cary scoffs at the supernatural tales, but as more and more inexplicable events occur her cynicism about the black arts starts to waver. She periodically goes back to New Orleans to see her best friend and roommate, who just happens to have an aunt who is a believer in hoodoo. In fact, the movie has another troubling undercurrent that is completely unintended. Some of the most disturbing scenes, catching the movie months after its theatrical release on video, are the vibrant street scenes filmed in a pre-Katrina New Orleans.

The Skeleton Key does have a true stunner of a surprise ending – one that relies on logic that I suspect may fall apart upon multiple viewings, but it is a climax which will leave your mouth agape when you experience it the first time. For this reason alone, The Skeleton Key is time well spent. Luckily for us, there are even more reasons to watch. (11/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: December 9, 2005.


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