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The Skeleton Key fails to scare

By Lady Liberty
web posted August 15, 2005

The Skeleton Key

* 1/2 out of ****

The Skeleton KeyScary movies are great fun. They're even more fun when they contain more than merely "startle" moments and actually go so far as to toy with your mind (The Ring is an especially good example). The Skeleton Key would like very much to be a movie like that. Unfortunately, though it does have a few redeeming moments, it's not.

Caroline (Kate Hudson) is a hospice worker who often finds herself becoming very attached to her patients. She tells her roommate, Jill (Joy Bryant) that she can't do the job well without becoming attached. At the same time, such attachments makes her work difficult. It's made all the more so when she feels that other hospice workers don't seem to care much at all. In an effort to remove herself from that setting as well as to make the money she needs to put herself through nursing school, she determines to work as a private caregiver instead.

Her plans are goaded when she finds a Help Wanted ad for the perfect job to further her goals. It offers good money, and it's only an hour away from her current home in New Orleans. Despite Jill's misgivings, Caroline travels to Terrebone Parish to meet with Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), the young estate lawyer who penned the ad on behalf of his clients. Caroline and Luke seem to hit it off just fine, and she forsees no problem caring for Ben (John Hurt), an elderly stroke patient who is near death. But Ben's wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), is another story.

Violet is fiercely independent, and resents the idea that anyone should step in to help her care for her beloved husband. Luke tells Caroline that several previous caretakers have quit because of Violet's attitude, but that he hopes she can understand the older woman's rudeness isn't personal. She's just, Luke explains, having a difficult time acknowledging that her husband is dying. Caroline understands, and she tentatively accepts the position.

Though Violet never entirely warms up to Caroline's presence in the big run-down plantation house, she grudgingly accepts the help. To that end, she gives Caroline a skeleton key that will, she says, "open every door in the house." As Caroline explores the mansion and develops a rapport with her ailing charge, she begins to discover some frightening oddities. On an errand to the attic, she finds a door that the skeleton key won't open. What lies in the locked room behind it? Ben, who is not supposed to be able to move, is apparently leaving mysterious messages for Caroline. And permeating everything in the remote rural parish is a black magic called "hoodoo" by the locals. Caroline isn't superstitious, but soon she, too, comes to fear that there's much more to her circumstances than can be rationally explained. And the more she learns, the more there is to fear...

Kate Hudson is okay in The Skeleton Key. She's certainly got more talent than her recent mediocre romantic comedy roles would indicate, and yet there's something lacking in her portrayal of Caroline which seems somewhat two-dimensional. John Hurt is good, though he has very little to say or do other than look helpless and fearful. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent, managing to somehow convey a southern gentility even as there's something a bit odd about him. Most impressive, though, is the performance offered by Gena Rowlands. Without ever raising her voice, she's rude, menacing, and artificially sweet as treacle by turns. She chews up the scenery in more than a few frames, and yet she never seems over the top in her performance.

The set involving the old mansion is fabulous, and so are some exteriors obviously shot on location. The problems with The Skeleton Key really lie mostly in a script that's not quite as good as it ought to be, and in direction and editing that's mediocre at best. The story has potential, but the script never entirely realizes it. The plot twists and turns ought to be more surprising than they are, but are not because they're often telegraphed in advance (though the surprise ending is fairly well handled). Bizarrely enough, even as I compared this movie with an earlier and much better predecessor, it should be noted that the same writer who penned The Ring also wrote the script for The Skeleton Key. Ehren Kruger has an uneven history as a writer, though. Along with the very good The Ring, he wrote the not-so-very good The Ring 2. He wrote the wonderful Arlington Road, but is responsible for Reindeer Games, too. Let's just hope that Kruger is back "on" again with the upcoming The Brothers Grimm!

There's a great depth of horror and shock here that could have been, and the fact that the audience will know that just makes the end result even more disappointing. Contributing in no small amount to the script's shortcomings is some bland direction as well as some brutal edits that take away from rather than contribute to the flow of the film. (Director Iain Softley has little history, but among his previous efforts is the also mediocre K-Pax.) Too bad. The idea behind The Skeleton Key deserved better, and so do audiences.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Skeleton Key is rated PG-13 for " violence, disturbing images, somoe partial nudity, and thematic material." There are some scenes depicted that are definitely not suitable for younger children, in particular some footage when the history of the maybe-haunted house is shown. There are also a few genuinely suspenseful moments that will doubtless prove too much for the younger or more sensitive viewer. Any true horror fan, however, will find nothing here to be unduly upsetting or disturbing (too bad). PG-13 is probably about right for the rating, though I suspect that most viewers of any age will find themselves at least vaguely disappointed in the end.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

 

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