“If you don’t believe in it, it can’t hurt you.”
Or such is the mantra of The Skeleton Key, a southern gothic melodrama set in the Hoodoo hotbed of the Louisiana bayou. Key stars Kate Hudson as Caroline Ellis, a hospice worker drawn to the profession after the unexpected death of her own father. Caroline is a compassionate soul who’s jaded by the machinations of hospitals and nursing homes and decides to take a private job caring for a dying man in the bayou.
When Caroline first meets Ben Devereaux (Hurt), he is in a nearly vegetative state after a suffering a stroke in the attic of his thirty room plantation home. Ben’s wife, the possessive Violet (Rowlands), at first resents Caroline’s presence in the home, as she feels more than capable of caring for her own husband. However, with the urging of the couple’s estate lawyer, Luke (Sarsgaard), Violet reluctantly accepts Caroline, and the young woman moves in.
Being a horror film, the idiosyncrasies of the house and its occupants begin to materialize almost as soon as Caroline unpacks, but none are as jarring to her as the fact that there are no mirrors in the house (were I Kate Hudson, I’d certainly want to look at myself every once and awhile), and Violet’s explanation as to why does little to satisfy Caroline. There’s also an escape attempt by Ben, who, to Caroline’s knowledge, was supposed to be completely bedridden. She finds a note scrawled in dirt that says “Help Me”, and instantly begins to suspect that this “stroke” victim may, in fact, be a prisoner in his own home. The discovery of a hidden Hoodoo room in the attic, as well as the Devereaux home’s sordid past, has Caroline convinced that Ben’s condition is not medical, but psychological; a man crippled by his belief in Hoodoo. However, as she goes about trying to debunk the religion and free her patient’s mind, she finds herself starting to believe.
And believing can hurt you!
The Skeleton Key isn’t a particularly scary film, but it is a satisfying and atmospheric bit of gothic fluff, and a welcome reprieve from the run-of-the-mill ghost stories of the last half-decade. Hudson, an actress I’d always thought best suited to the same sort of goofy comedy roles that made her mother (Goldie Hawn) famous, does an admirable job here, and shows a genuine knack for the genre. Rowlands is, as always, a treat as Violet, and Hurt does wonders with a role that offers him merely a handful of garbled lines. For my money, however, Peter Sarsgaard owns this film. I’ve loved this actor’s deceptively laid back intensity in everything from Garden State to Jarhead, and he’s fantastic here as the gentlemanly southern lawyer.
My main gripes with the film rest in the lap of screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring), whose script is a bit trite, and telegraphs the film’s “shock” ending so that all but the most gullible of viewers will have it pretty much figured out by the time the last of the main characters are introduced.
The DVD from Universal piles on heaps of extra materials, including several extremely short featurettes (a five minute making of?!), deleted scenes (with optional commentary), and a full-length feature commentary. The amount of extras are a bit misleading as, with the exception of the feature commentary, I was able to see them all in less than a half-an-hour. Still, there’s a killer recipe for Gumbo here that I’ve got to try.
The Skeleton Key won’t blow any minds, but fans of the traditional Voodoo flicks and southern gothics will appreciate the beautifully shot locales, attention to detail, and generally fine performances across the board. While the ending seems more suited to an episode of Tales from the Crypt, there’s still enough Hoodoo spooks and creepy/cool N’awlins vibe that help keep what would otherwise be a mild horror film just this side of spicy.