Hippo Manchester
August 18, 2005

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The Skeleton Key (PG-13)
By Amy Diaz

Kate Hudson gets Cajun spices on her helping of horror movie in The Skeleton Key, a jambalaya of hokey clichés, over-heated Southern imagery and hoodoo, the less religion-heavy form of voodoo.

You’ve gotta love the movie-South — sure we’re more than 130 years past the Civil War but the movie-South is still chock full of decaying plantations and memories of slave times. The actual South is abloom with housing developments, shopping plazas and Starbucks but the movie-South looks like no one has thought to paint or clean anything in 100 years. And within movie-South, there is movie-Louisiana, which is chockablock full of Francophones and conjurers and practitioners of all sorts of folk magic.

Actually, an even smaller subset of movie-Louisiana is movie-New Orleans, the place where Caroline (Hudson) begins her little adventure. After losing yet another abandoned elder at her hospice, nurse-in-training Caroline decides to chuck institutionalized care and take a job an hour into rural bayou country as the live-in nurse for Ben (John Hurt), an old man who has suffered a stroke and has been left bed-ridden and speechless. Violet (Gena Rowlands), Ben’s wife, is less than thrilled at having a Yankee interloper snooping around her giant mansion. But she relents, in part due to the convincing of the well-mannered lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard) who helps manage the couple’s estate.

Caroline moves in and begins to care for Ben, who seems to desperately want to tell her something via the eye-rolling, wrist-grabbing method. What’s that, Ben, you think you’re under a Hoodoo spell, Caroline infers. Not exactly believing in curses and spells, this no-nonsense nurse nevertheless finds herself buying brick dust and special candles in an attempt to find out what, exactly, caused Ben’s stroke.

The movie presents us with a couple of possible culprits. The first is a pair of black servants who were lynched outside the house in the 1920s. The second is the hissing Violet, who is so perfectly comfortable with an air of cool evil that it’s impossible to imagine her as innocent.

All horror movies need to give you an enemy to fight — a slasher, a zombie or, in the case of Dark Water, bad plumbing. In The Skeleton Key, the big creepy thing is the big gothic house, which creaks and groans for inexplicable reasons. As enemies go, the house is an interesting one — you never know when a door is going to lead to unspeakable evil or unspeakable termite infestation. Whether it’s going to haunt you or crumble beneath your feet, the house does have the look a building that wants to do you in. However, since it’s not terribly exciting as a physical presence, the film has to make up for that in predictable film ways: the swooping shot down on a character, the tight shot on a doorknob, the creepy-corner-perspective shot on a character. Ah, the classics.

But even with these tricks, the house can’t do all the heavy lifting, so it’s up to Rowlands to snarl and hiss and serve as a more human enemy. She does a fine job — somewhere a camp-loving drag queen is planning a Gena Rowlands review.

The Skeleton Key also performs the rather amazing feat of letting its lead character be revealed as sort of an idiot, with her idiot tendencies becoming more apparent as the movie wears on. And, indeed, the movie does wear on you at times — yeah, hoodoo, racial injustice, yadda yadda. But the silly plot keeps churning and the movie doesn’t let us dwell too much on all the nonsensical explanations and silly twists.

The Skeleton Key is a movie I wouldn’t recommend but did enjoy for all its B-horror-movie charms.