The Skeleton Key

As a PG-13 suspense/mystery flick, The Skeleton Key has all the potential of being a complete bomb. Films of this type are ground out by studios numerous times throughout the year hoping to capitalize on teenage audiences everywhere. Those audiences expressed their disinterest in yet another thriller however, and the film barely made back its budget at the theatrical box office. That’s quite a disappointment, because among the junk movies of this type (and there are quite a few, most of which I’ve been forced to see), The Skeleton Key is actually quite an interesting ride. Kate Hudson is uninspired as Caroline Ellis, a hospice nurse in training who has gotten tired of how companies run hospice centers as businesses, with no concern for the inhabitants there. She decides to move to private home care, and winds up in an old plantation home caring for Ben Devereaux, an old man whose wife Violet is having difficulties coming to terms with the idea of her husband dying. But Caroline is not just a caretaker. There’s a bit too much Nancy Drew in the young nurse, who begins poking around in the old home to discover a room that her master skeleton key won’t open, which may hold the secret to Ben’s condition and the house’s past.

The Skeleton Key really is a misnomer for the film which, other than exposing the internal mechanisms of door locks every other time a key is used, loses the mystery of the locked door behind once the door is opened less than halfway through the film. However, that name and Hudson’s lack of impressive acting abilities are really the only big issues with a film that in almost all other ways succeeds to tell a compelling, fairly suspenseful story.

At the heart of the story is the strong acting skills of the cast (sans Hudson). Gena Rowlands brings a vulnerability to Violet that feels strange when cast next to her own confidence. This is a self-sufficient woman as portrayed by Rowlands, who knows more then she lets on, which makes her almost as much of an enigma as the house itself. John Hurt is virtually unrecognizable as Ben Devereaux and seems like the strangest bit of casting for the film, leaving the audience to ask why anyone would place a classic British actor in the role of a vegetative New Orleans senior. One look at Hurt’s performance is a perfect example of an actor who truly believes in the craft though. He doesn’t do a weak job of just laying there, which a lesser actor might try. Hurt puts the entire performance in his face, particularly in his eyes, which is one of the few parts Ben is able to move. Finally one of my personal favorites, Peter Sarsgaard gets a chance to shine in a role different from his usual slacker types. In Skeleton Key Sarsgaard plays a local small town attorney who is drawn into the mystery Caroline unfolds because he’s the one who originally hired her.

The creepy setting of the film supports the acting skills of the cast adding much needed atmosphere to the tale of mystery and hoodoo. Yep, you read that right - hoodoo, not voodoo. Voodoo (as the story tells us) is a religion where hoodoo is made up solely of magical ceremonies but with no religious beliefs behind them. It’s also important to note hoodoo requires the belief of everyone involved to work - that’s an important aspect of the plot and where the creepy atmosphere comes into play. From the creaky recorded ceremonies of Papa Justice to the shadowy plantation house, hoodoo becomes something the audience stops doubting and starts believing, which gives the story the power it needs to work, even with a silly plot device like hoodoo.

The final measure of a suspense/mystery film like The Skeleton Key for me is how well the movie makes sense once the mystery’s solution is offered. Given the amount of PG-13 films like this one ground out every year, most of the time that ending conflicts with the rest of the film. I’m happy to say Skeleton Key’s ending not only makes sense, but is a logical progression from the story as it is told. The disadvantage of that is it’s a bit predictable, but in the end it’s well executed, so the movie’s predictability can be forgiven. The DVD release for The Skeleton Key falls into the same trap as many Universal DVD releases: an impressive menu listing lots of features that suddenly seems lacking once those features are watched. If it wasn’t for the commentary track, this DVD would barely have an hour worth of features, despite a bonus section full of them.

Most of the featurettes should have been combined into one large documentary on the film, especially considering the “making of” documentary is only about five minutes long and not really about the making of the film at all. Since all of the featurettes were produced with the same structure and credit style, it should have been simple to put them all together under one banner. Sadly that kind of care is lacking, as is a “play all” option, so the viewer is forced back to the menu screen every couple of minutes to select the next featurette.

The featurettes range in subject from casting to music to a personal ghost story by Kate Hudson. Through all of the features director Iain Softly comes across as quite knowledgeable about the genre and what he’s trying to do, while Hudson comes across as vacuous and just a step away from Paris Hilton in the clueless category. How can this possibly be the same actress who dazzled people with her Almost Famous performance? Skipping over Hudson’s story seems like a wise choice, instead opting for John Hurt’s reading from “Voices of Slavery”, which, while less spooky, is a lot more dramatic.

There are over 20 minutes of deleted scenes included. Actually, there is over 20 minutes of footage included in the deleted scenes, most of which wasn’t deleted. Most of the deleted material appears to be an insert shot here or there, so enough footage is shown to place the shot in context. This means most of the “deleted scenes” are actually scenes from the movie with one extra meaningless shot added in. I could completely understand why most of these shots were cut, most likely to aid pacing, but for the most part they don’t make an interesting DVD feature at all. What’s really sad is there were a couple moments in the film that had rough transitions where there appeared to have been a scene cut. Scenes bridging those gaps aren’t put here, which means there was really some rough editing in a few spots, or we haven’t seen the last of The Skeleton Key’s cutting room floor.

What is sorely lacking from the DVD is any sort of retrospective look from the cast and crew at making the movie. I know, the movie was only in theaters a couple months ago, so why should there be a look back? Well, the bulk of the movie occurs in and around New Orleans. Hasn’t something world-shattering occurred in that area since the filming of the movie that might make it worth looking back at things? Normally I’m not in favor of material that specifically dates a DVD or movie, but in this case events have already dated the movie. I think paying tribute to the people and locations that helped and inspired the films would have been a wise move. Alas, no such thought was given.

The Skeleton Key is one of those rare thriller/horror flicks that is actually worth a look. It may not leave you with the heebie-jeebies, but it is at least an interesting story told in a pretty solid fashion – as long as you can ignore the less then compelling lead. This DVD release however, is as impressive as it first appears. Check out the movie, but don’t expect to get a lot of replay time out of the DVD.