The Skeleton Key

2006-04-25 14:20


Caroline (Kate Hudson) is tired. She's tired of working at the New Orleans hospice and watching her favourite patients die. She's tired of earning less then she's worth and she's tired of the city. So when she spots an advert for a live-in caretaker at $1,000 a week she jumps at the chance, even though the job means moving to the middle of a remote swamp. She makes her way to the rundown Devereaux mansion where she meets her patient Ben (John Hurt), a stroke victim who has lost the ability to speak, and his domineering wife Violet (Gena Rowlands).

After an uncomfortable interview, Violet agrees to employ Caroline and presents her with a skeleton key. The key will open any door in the house with the exception of the one in the attic, which Violet claims she has never been able to open. Unable to contain her curiosity Caroline soon finds a way to open the door. In doing so she uncovers a dark history that the house has concealed for generations - a history that Violet knows more about than she is willing to admit.


In the world of psychological thrillers The Skeleton Key is that most rare of birds - a film whose obvious faults and logical inconsistencies somehow don't overwhelm the enjoyment of watching it. This is rare because psychological thrillers rely on the strength of their ability to draw the audience into a carefully woven web of tension and anticipation. Any lapses in logic or common sense defuse that tension and allow the audience room to disbelieve and disengage. Without the guts and gore of horror films, or the car chases and shootouts of more action-orientated thrillers the psychological thriller has nothing to fall back on - believability is its only weapon.

And yet, despite some big gaps in common sense and a good deal of tension killing flab, The Skeleton Key is not only watchable but actually quite enjoyable. Part of its success comes from the marvellous Kate Hudson. Like her mother, uber ditz Goldie Hawn, she has what people blithely refer to as "star quality". This is really shorthand for the ability to make the audience trust and identify with you just by appearing on the screen. This is helped by the fact that she is fairly convincing actress, or at least more so than her mother ever was. Because we inherently like Hudson, it's much easier to care about what's happening in the film. Disliking her would be like kicking a puppy and most people are happy enough to be charmed, even when she occasionally chews the movie's shoes or messes in the house.

Of course Hudson couldn't act in a vacuum and she is ably supported by the likes of Gena Rowlands and Peter Sarsgaard. Rowlands in particular manages to bring both grace and menace to her role, and a sense of self-assurance that only 50 years in the business can give you. Sarsgaard gives a typically solid performance as the Devereaux's young lawyer, making the most of his slightly unsettling screen presence. One small joy in the cast is John Hurt as the incapacitated Ben. While it seems almost cruel to give an actor as great as Hurt a role without any lines, you can see why director Iain Softly chose him. His expressive eyes and command of facial expressions transform his otherwise mute character into a vital part of the story instead of a mere plot device.

Another asset is the movie's visual treatment. From the cinematographer (South African born Daniel Mindel) to the art direction and set decoration team it's clear that Softly had a very specific plan for how he wanted the film to look. Shot on location in a 150-year-old Louisiana mansion, the film has a gorgeously dressed gothic atmousphere, complete with dim hallways, creaky doors and a foetid bayou right in the backyard. Mindel does a good job of magnifying the eeriness, shooting many scenes through desaturating filters to give them an ethereal gloom. He and Softly also pile on the kind of mechanics essential to psychological thrillers - claustrophobic framing, a subjective camera "watching" the helpless heroine and carefully timed jump cuts to give the audience a good old-fashioned skrik.

It's in the screenplay that the film shows its faults most plainly. Ehren Kruger, who shot to fame with his creepy adaptation of Japanese horror film The Ring, is hardly on top form for The Skeleton Key. It's interesting that both films have similar gaps in their logic, but the ideas that drive The Ring are far more original and the direction by Gore Verbinski far more sure-handed so that these gaps don't matter as much. In the familiar haunted house set-up these kinds of slips are far more obvious. Why wouldn't Caroline run to the authorities at the first sign of trouble? No convincing explanation is offered. Kruger also makes his clues too obvious - we know right from the start that Violet is up to no good.

But you have to give Kruger credit for the wicked twist in the movie's tail, not to mention the producers who agreed to it. It's nowhere near as powerful as The Sixth Sense orThe Others, but it's still effective. The twist goes some way to redeeming the screenplay's faults, but in movies the end does not necessarily justify the means. A killer ending is only as good on the platform on which it's built.

For a night at the movies you could do far worse than The Skeleton Key. At the very least it should give you a couple of good scares. Just don't expect The Ring or The Sixth Sense or you'll leave disappointed.

- Alistair Fairweather

Get lost in the swamps with this spooky voodoo thriller featuring the charming Kate Hudson.

evasive 2005/09/01 7:15 PM
Nice! I suggest you go see it, if you like the dark of course! Most defaintly!
elna 2005/09/02 1:30 PM
The skeleton Key good the skeleton key
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