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The Skeleton Key Review

By Shawn McKenzie 08/16/2005

In most cases, when I see a ho-hum horror movie that fails to be scary, it usually ends with a not-so-scary finale.  The Skeleton Key is one of those movies that actually ends on a high note.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a young, blonde, 25-year-old white girl who wants to be a nurse, but she is sick of working in hospices in order to pay for nursing school.  She doesn’t like that the hospices don’t seem to care about their patients.  After a patient named Mr. Talcott (Bill H. McKenzie) dies and her superiors order her to throw away the man’s belongings because the man’s family doesn’t want them, she becomes fed up and quits.  Part of the reason that she became a nurse was because she didn’t want to see anyone die alone.  Her own father had died in New Jersey while she was away, and she has felt guilty about it ever since.  While riding on a train, she sees an ad for a hospice caregiver to care for her dying husband, who is slowly dying from a stroke.  It is in the swamplands of Terrebonne Parish outside of New Orleans, and she figures that the position might be better than her old job.  Her friend Jill (Joy Bryant) doesn’t think that it is a good idea, because only people with three teeth live there.  Caroline takes it anyway, and she goes to the Terrebonne Parish mansion to meet the family’s estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard.)  Luke tells her that she will be taking care of Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who has lived there since 1962 with his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands.)  The stroke, which happened about a month ago up in the attic, has left him speechless, and though he can move a little, he is either confined to his bed or his wheelchair.  When Violet meets Caroline, she isn’t too happy with the girl.  She says that Caroline “won’t understand the house,” including why there are no mirrors anywhere.  Apparently Caroline is the fifth caregiver to take the position, and the previous four all quit when they got creeped out by the house, like the most recent caregiver, Hallie (Fahnlohnee Harris.)  After a little hesitation, Luke convinces Caroline to still take the job.  She goes back to New Orleans and says her goodbyes to Jill (she will be living in the mansion.)  On her way back, she stops for gas.  When she goes in to pay for it, she freaks out after seeing a weird-looking blind woman (Christa Thorne) with white eyes.  This is after seeing a bunch of chicken bones hanging all over the walls and a line of red brick dust in front of door.  The gas station owner (Isaach De Bankolé) takes her money and she leaves.  When she finally gets back to the mansion, Violet gives her a skeleton key that is supposed to open every door in the house.  Later on that night, she finds Ben crawling along the roof.  He falls off the roof, but he is okay.  While going to rescue him, Caroline notices that he has written the words “Help Me” on a bed sheet with potting soil.  She finds it weird, but doesn’t know what to do.  The next morning, she asks Violet how he had his stroke.  Violet dodges the question and asks Caroline to go up to the attic for some gardening tools.  While up there, Caroline discovers a secondary attic door that’s been hidden behind a large shelf.  She goes into the room where she finds all sorts of weird things, including a vinyl record LP containing a sacrifice spell on it.  Later, Caroline again asks Violet how Ben had his stroke.  She explains that a banker named Robertson Thorpe (Tom Uskali), his wife Madeleine (Jen Apgar), and their two children, Martin (Forrest Landis) and Grace (Jamie Lee Redmon), previously owned the house.  They had two black servants named Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott Sales) who practiced the art of hoodoo, which is like voodoo, only more magical (voodoo is more of a religious practice.)  One night, during a party, Papa and Mama were hung when they were seen practicing hoodoo with the children up in the attic.  Violet believes that their spirits still live in that attic room, and that Ben’s stroke happened when he saw Papa and Mama in a mirror in that attic room.  Caroline doesn’t believe in this hoodoo stuff, but she thinks that Ben might, and if she can find out more about it, maybe it will help the old man.  She asks Jill’s aunt, Mama Cynthia (Maxine Barnett), for some information on hoodoo, and she gives Caroline a hoodoo magic kit to help Ben.  Caroline also tells Luke that she thinks that Violet is hurting Ben, and that she needs to get him away from his wife.  Through the magic of hoodoo, Caroline tries to discover the real reasons for Ben’s stroke and possibly help him before it’s too late.

There is absolutely no reason why I would give away the ending, but trust me…it is a good one.  I was about ready to declare this movie yet another one of 2005’s least scary movies…and then I saw the conclusion.  Screenwriter Ehren Kruger has a spotty record.  His first theatrical screenplay was 1999’s creepy Arlington Road.  He followed that in the same year with a direct-to-video movie called New World Disorder (I’ve never seen it.)  In 2000, he wrote the screenplay for Scream 3, the worst of the trilogy.  In 2002, he wrote Reindeer Games, and though I’m in the minority, I actually liked that one.  In that same year, he wrote two other screenplays…the science fiction thriller Imposter and the PG-13 rated The Ring.  I saw Imposter, and though I don’t remember a lot about it, I think I remember liking it.  The Ring is, to this day, only the third PG-13 rated movie that actually gave me chills, right behind 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2001’s The Others.  Kruger then took three years off and came back with this year’s The Ring Two, which was one of the worst movies of the year.  I’m hoping that he will have better luck with this month’s Terry Gilliam-directed The Brothers Grimm.

Speaking of directors, a good screenplay can easily be messed up by a bad director (just watch any of the three seasons of HBO/Bravo’s series “Project Greenlight” for proof.)  Iain Softley was this movie’s director, and I have only liked one of his movies, 1995’s Hackers (to be honest…out of his five movies, I had never seen one of them, which was 2001’s K-PAX.)  Maybe his direction was the reason that this movie wasn’t very terrifying.

It certainly wasn’t the acting that was the problem.  Hudson is great, like her famous Oscar-winning mom Goldie Hawn.  Rowlands has bounced back from last year’s incredibly lame The Notebook to be appropriately sinister.  Hurt doesn’t talk in the movie, but his eyes tell much more than his words ever could.  I don’t want to say much about Sarsgaard (because his role in the movie is part of the “twist” end), but he can play a convincing Southern gentleman.

I’d say to wait for The Skeleton Key to go to DVD, but I’m afraid that someone will spoil the end for you before then.  Maybe you should check it out at a matinee first, and then rent it again on DVD later.  For some weird reason, I have a feeling that it’s one of those movies that might get better the second time around.


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