|The Skeleton Key (2005)
Starring: Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Joy Bryant
Director: Iain Softley
“The Skeleton Key” is one of those rare movies where the payoff is actually better than the setup. The ending is the part that most moviemakers screw up, so it’s good to see someone get the important stuff right. However, to get to this ending, one must suffer 90 tedious minutes of a spook-free thriller with an affinity for the way David Fincher poked through key holes in “Panic Room.” By the time the good stuff arrives, it makes for a tidy ending, but not a particularly shocking one. It does get bonus points, though, for using an obscure, underrated 1988 supernatural thriller as its source material. (To say which movie it most resembles would reveal far too much.)
Kate Hudson, looking more and more like her mother, stars as a hospice worker named Caroline who takes a job in rural Louisiana caring for Ben (John Hurt), a man who’s suffered a debilitating stroke. Caroline instantly notices that things are a little off in their house. There are no mirrors in any of the rooms. Ben looks less catatonic than terrified. His wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), is one of those hardened old school southerners, and only reluctantly tells Caroline the tale of the original owners of the house and the hoodoo-practicing servants who used to live there. Her curiosity aroused, Caroline uses the skeleton key Violet gave her to snoop around the house, and soon discovers all kinds of spells, ingredients, and other spooky things.
The key, pardon the pun, to these kinds of movies is misdirection. They are structured to head one way, only to turn around and shift the blame to someone you least suspect, and then start putting the missing pieces into place. “The Skeleton Key” skips the first step entirely, which severely diminishes the impact of the climax, since there is little mystery as to the true intentions of all concerned. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you any of this: the trailer gives the entire movie away on its own.
Hudson handles the role with aplomb, though the scene of her undressing in the bathroom is the textbook definition of gratuitous. (Guys will love this shot though, as you see more of Hudson’s breasts than you probably should in a PG-13 movie.) Still, she’s not your typical horror movie damsel in distress, taking control whenever possible and not easily intimidated or scared. Hurt has a thankless role, the kind of character that has to do it all with his eyes, but any physical movements look overblown. Rowlands surely relished the opportunity to play this role, but she doesn’t play it convincingly enough to do the story justice. Ehren Kruger’s script has some well placed lines that reveal hidden meanings in retrospect, but what would have served the movie better is executing the action in Act I, rather than focusing on a clever double entendre.
It seems peculiar that the makers of “The Skeleton Key” could not find a way to flesh out the action early on, thereby allowing the movie’s ending to unfold out of sight of the audience. After all, aren’t most movies done in from having lots of ideas but little discipline? It’s a shame; the ending deserved a better beginning.