The Skeleton Key

Can we just dispense with the twist ending? You’re not fooling anyone. Every thriller now has to have a big, final twist. We expect them, and so when they arrive, it’s absolutely no surprise to anyone. Just once, it might be nice to see a movie where everything you’re told is the absolute truth. Truth can be scary. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln is living in your attic… and he’s hungry for bones! That’s scary right? Having the ghost turn out to actually be the deceased spirit of Theodore Roosevelt won’t make his skeletal munching machinations any more frightening. Let’s try to use a little les twisting and focus more on scaring. Maybe by doing that The Skeleton Key would be as freaky as it wants to be, instead of ending up as a terminal bore.

It really should be easy. The film has the right setting: the bayous of Louisiana. Gators, hillbillies, voodoo priestesses, Swamp Things, there’s no place scarier. And it has nasty old people. Old people are very scary. And it has Kate Hudson… her appearance is very very scary. Though you may have heard otherwise, this is not a pretty girl. Quit buying into the hype. She’s not her mother. Kate has pancake face. Pass the syrup. But all the mysticism of swamp gypsies and rude old people never comes together into anything cohesive. The Skeleton Key would rather chase shadows than get around to scaring the pants off you. Cue the “something scary is about to happen here” music.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a twenty-five going on forty, and she needs extra money for college. Rather than take up stripping, she decides to take a job helping an elderly woman care for her dying husband. The woman is Violet Deveraux (Gena Rowlands), and she’s a real bitch. She lives in a massive mansion way out in the swamp, and when Caroline first meets her Violet comments that she’s unacceptable since she isn’t Southern and won’t understand the house. Caroline is from Jersey, and as such should have had the good sense to leave right then. This is a movie, so she talks Violet into giving her the job and stays.

John Deveraux (John Hurt) suffered a stroke some months ago, and is now completely paralyzed. He can’t move or even speak; he just lies there sweating, taking in the room with obviously terrified eyes. In fact, he seems to be asking Caroline for help. After a few bizarre encounters, she starts to worry for his well being, and contacts the Deveraux family attorney Luke (Peter Sarsgaard) for help. Attorneys are after all, completely trustworthy right? Is Violet poisoning her husband? Is the house sitting atop an ancient Indian burial mound? Why does Caroline keep giving John this mysterious “remedy” that Violet concocts, even when she is almost certain that Violet is using it to harm her husband?

Eventually Violet starts talking about “Hoodoo” which seems a lot like Voodoo, except the word has an “H” in it. If you’re up on the differences, please don’t email me about it. Violet claims the house is haunted by the ghosts of Hoodoo magicians, and blames them for her husband’s stroke. Caroline is a skeptic, and doesn’t believe in all that magic-mumbo jumbo. That’s good, since we’re told repeatedly that you’re safe from it as long as you don’t believe in it. So of course it’s not long before Caroline forgets her skepticism and starts herself to believe. Will she get gotten by the big bad Hoodoo daddy? Are there ghosts? Who cares. Ignore everything, it’s all lies until the film gets around to the twist.

Once the twist comes it’s exactly what you expect, yet for some reason Caroline never figures out. It’s not supported by the rest of the film really, but then unless you’re watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie they never are. Our Horror/Thrillers keep aping The Sixth Sense, but they’re only imitating it, they can’t seem to duplicate it. The Skeleton Key wastes too much time asking questions and should have instead taken advantage of the creepy setting at hand to make an atmospheric piece of Hoodoo terror. The few scares present are cheaply delivered, and Kate Hudson continues her streak of mediocrity in below-mediocre movies. Unless there’s an Almost Famous 2, look for her star to keep right on falling.