The Skeleton Key Movie Review

Set in and around Louisiana's swampy back waters, The Skeleton Key dabbles profusely in Hoodoo, American folk magic that's different - and supposedly less harmful - than the religion-based Voodoo. Tell that to Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), a bed-ridden and muted stroke victim who believes his immobility and speech impediments are attributed to a curse placed on his dwindling spirit.

Ben's doting wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), begrudgingly hires hospice worker Caroline (Kate Hudson) to assist her with her husband's medical needs. The registered nurse, burned out by the poor quality of care in New Orleans' choice hospitals, is eager to assist a patient on her own terms. The longer Caroline stays in the Devereaux's dilapidated mansion, though, the more convinced she becomes that the Hoodoo that we do is no good.

Any project that pairs Hurt with Rowlands and finds time for character actor Peter Sarsgaard (in a brief part) deserves bonus points. Hurt, looking 100 years older than his actual age (65), grimaces and groans through a pivotal but action-free role. Rowlands has plenty more to sink her teeth into, injecting Violet with wildly fluctuating streaks of kindness and resentment, a bi-polar threat reminiscent of Kathy Bates in Misery. Her campy but dangerous interplays with Hudson are anchored by the younger actress's credible performance. Away from the trappings of a sticky-sweet romantic comedy (Raising Helen or Alex & Emma, to name just two of her recent, awful outings), Hudson shows an ability to hold the camera's attention as she bulldogs through a Nancy Drew potboiler with persistent chills.

Without ignoring his film's ongoing mystery, director Iain Softley cloaks Key in ample layers of Southern Gothic mood, the quaint mixture of politeness and menace common in Dixie's oldest neighborhoods. He knows when to reveal interesting tidbits and when it's safe to merely point the lens down a darkened hallway and let one's imagination do the rest.

The film's limited problems can be traced back to screenwriter Ehren Kruger. After delivering one phenomenal script, the taut Arlington Road, Kruger has cranked out repeated examples of screenplay mediocrity that either border on acceptability (The Ring) or tumble to atrocity (Reindeer Games). To his credit, Kruger conjures a believable twist for Key that sums up the supernatural proceedings if taken with minimal grains of salt. Along the way, however, he can't resist including a parade of phony horror clichés meant to generate predictably cheap scares. Coincidental power outages on dark and stormy nights manifest pitch-black corners of the film's massive mansion, perfect for people to leap out of at inopportune times. You'd think we'd seen it all before, but the jolts had members of my preview audience shrieking in uncomfortable delight.

Still can't find her keys.


The Skeleton Key Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, 2005


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