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Skeleton Key, The (2005)

PG-13 ∑ 104 minutes

Directed by Iain Softley
Written by Ehren Kruger

 · Kate Hudson
 · Gena Rowlands
 · John Hurt
 · Peter Sarsgaard
 · Joy Bryant

Review by Bachalon (John Schlembach)

Whenever a studio has a movie with moderate suspense, but is short on scares, it seems to be reclassified as a "thriller" as opposed to the more cut and dry horror. Thriller is a baffling genre, as there are suspense-thrillers, horror-thrillers, and comedy-thrillers in great number clogging the theaters year after year. For the horror thriller it seems an attempt to rise above the clichťs and tropes that are expected: weak writing, incomprehensible plot, and buckets of fake blood. For the thriller, the plot must be mystery driven, have a few cool set pieces, and most importantly, decent action sequences.

This brings us to The Skeleton Key the latest (for now at least) from prolific scribe Ehren Kruger. Itís a preposterous, albeit entertaining, thriller.




This movie is not dumb, but that is not to say itís particularly smart. While I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the magick portrayed, I can tell you the characters are written only enough to make them different from one another, though even those distinctions might be due only to the presence of refreshingly capable actors.

The movie opens with the main character, Caroline (Kate Hudson), who we learn is a nurse in a succint opening scene as she reads to an infirm patient moments before he dies. Jump cut a few moments later to her reactions to the death and to the indifference of those she works with. We next see her in a bar with her best friend defending her decision to quit he job. "Itís like a business to them," she remarks. It becomes clear to her that sheís not making the difference she wants.

See, in the very recent past Caroline was absent during her fatherís death and that guilt has driven her to help who she can however she can. Not the most noble of motivations, but it has pointed her in the right direction.

After quitting her job, she takes up hospice work at a decaying house outside of New Orleans in a swampy locale with a reputation for the strange. Undeterred by the location, she rolls up her sleeves and begins caring for a man, Ben, who is slowly dying from the after-effects of a stroke (played by a comatose John Hurt) he suffered just a month earlier. Despite finding herself annoying the matriarch of the mansion, Violet (Gena Rowlands), she nonetheless continues in her duty to Ben.

At this point, the 'horror' part of this tale comes to call. Caroline learns from the coupleís lawyer that she is, in fact, the fifth such person to take this job. All the previous applicants departed from the job quickly after encountering mysterious happenings.

Try as she might, Caroline canít quite unravel the secret of the house so in a not unexpected confrontation, she manages to weasel the sordid history of the house out of a flustered Violet. From this point on The Skeleton Key degenerates into the hackery that seemed threatening to overwhelm it since the beginning. The revelation of a haunting comes too late for the clues to be remembered, and the reasons behind it seem secondary to providing a) the obligatory half-naked search of the house at midnight, b) the requisite atmosphere, and c) no less than five jump scenes.

As the movie plods towards its conclusion, weíre treated to a lackluster chase, a last minute role-reversal, and a surprisingly cynical (though not unwelcome) ending.




The most that can be said about this movie is that it will entertain the first time itís viewed. Donít expect to learn anything new about these characters or their plight upon repeat viewings. The movie is entertaining enough but exhausts whatever tricks it has by the conclusion. It has the subtlety of a doctor before administering a shot.

That is not to say it isn't enjoyable. As with any moderately engaging mystery/thriller/horror film, there is a particular delight in trying to decipher the clues before the final reveal, regardless of how close one has come to predicting the ultimate conclusion.

The actors, for the most part deliver performances well above the b-grade material, with Gena Rowlands giving the most nuanced of them. John Hurt is wasted, content to lie prone and look confused for his interminable minutes of screen time. Kate Hudson is decent in her first role of this sort since she became a household name, but doesnít seem comfortable with the material. Some of the dialogue comes off as laughable, and some of the characters are rather inconsistent.

The sets are suitably atmospheric, evoking a time not too past that hasnít aged well. There is mild commentary on assimilation based on that, but itís not handled with any sort of reverence (this is a 'thriller' after all). The music could best be described as efficient, with an unmemorable score trying its hardest to aid the images on screen. The directing is much the same. Iain Softley has left nothing on film that will return to haunt us in the middle of the night, nothing that will make an unexpected return when certain mundane objects are seen. The shots range from pedestrian to annoying (how many times can you show the mechanics of a key unlocking a door?). As if to make up for a lack of genuine frights, false scares pop up here and there.

All in all though, the movie works well enough if the brain is checked at the door and isnít set to scrutinizing the details immediately after the movie has ended.



As stated earlier, while The Skeleton Key is enjoyable on some unimpressive level, it has a very firm placement in the cinematic wasteland of both August/September and that amalgam genre 'thriller'. Suffering from weak characters, dialogue in the throes of rigor mortis, and no voice of its own, itís a thriller that fails to thrill and a horror movie both literally and figuratively without guts.

981 Words ∑ Published: 16 August 2005

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