August 18, 2005
Skeleton Key (PG-13)
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