Directed by: Iain Softley
Starring: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Joy Bryant, Maxine Barnett
I think I would feel less cheated by Iain Softley's The Skeleton Key if it was just bad, but it isn't. It's actually pretty good, but it's so obvious it could have been great that it becomes a truly maddening experience -- and one that further indicates that Ehren Kruger's script for The Ring was either a fluke, or heavily remonkeyed by director Gore Verbinski.
The pity of this is that there are good things in Kruger's screenplay for The Skeleton Key -- including the fairly original idea of cooking up a story about hoodoo, which is kind of like voodoo minus the religion aspect. But those things have to sit cheek by jowl with a clumsy structure and an ending that tries too hard to be a surprise (it isn't), and a climax that sputters and fizzles like a damp fuse.
Some of the blame must rest on director Softley's shoulders, since he, too, might have sensed that he had a problem when the "Big Scene" that brings it all together consisted of five seconds of screen time, a mirror on wheels, a tinkling of shattered glass and a candle blowing out -- followed by a revelation that was no revelation at all; most of the audience had figured it out two or three reels earlier. What's most mystifying and maddening about this is that Softley pulls off several bigger, better, more impressive, unsettling moments earlier in the film, only to succumb to a climax that feels like a clever 1970s TV movie.
Overall, Skeleton Key is a fascinating compendium of the horror movies it apparently would like to be. The setup of having a nurse, Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), come to an isolated location to care for an unresponsive patient whose ailment turns out to be supernatural (or psychological) in origin is a worthy reworking of Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie. The decaying Louisiana bayou mansion, much of the atmosphere and the trip to a swamp cabin to uncover the truth owe much to John Newland's TV adaptation of the Robert E. Howard story Pigeons From Hell. The New Orleans setting of other scenes, the atmosphere created there, plus a visit to a hoodoo specialty store bear more than a passing similarity to Alan Parker's Angel Heart.
Skeleton Key happily doesn't so much rip off these films as it honors them -- and gets near to joining their ranks in bone-chilling creepiness. But what it never does is provide a satisfying whole.
Its first problem crops up early on -- and it's one that seems especially odd coming from Kruger. One of the things that worked about The Ring was that it was savvy enough to grab the audience's interest early on, establishing the essence of its premise and affording the viewer an early jolt before settling in on atmosphere and development. In The Skeleton Key, his screenplay just jumps into atmosphere and development without offering anything to hook the viewer, resulting in an opening that's frankly rather dull.
The story finally takes hold and the slow buildup pays off as the movie grows progressively creepy and unsettling, and finally develops a sense of genuine dread, which it manages to pull off for most of its length. Unlike many horror pictures, the revelation of what happened years and years ago that set the current events in motion isn't a disappointment -- an essential element in a film where that revelation occurs fairly early in the proceedings. That's not dissimilar to the feat Kruger pulled off in The Ring, but The Ring used it to better advantage by then providing the viewer with a series of payoffs. Here, this approach finally turns out to be the movie's biggest payoff, building to an anti-climax of no mean proportions. The worst of this is that the movie keeps threatening to turn into something truly special along the way.
The material -- the raw material -- is there, but the film keeps overlooking it, presumably because everyone involved was so focused on the "twist" ending. You just know that the mysterious locked room filled with hoodoo artifacts will come back into play -- then it doesn't.
Even at that, the film generates more than a little suspense and tension in its extended climactic session. (OK, so Caroline's apparently bottomless mayonnaise jar of brick dust becomes comical when it seems to be magically refilling itself.) The characters are well-drawn and believable -- apart from the mystery villain, who is transparently up to no good from the onset -- and the story is nicely filled in. For example, Violet Devereaux's (Gena Rowlands) early, seemingly forced objections to Caroline as a nurse for her stricken husband (John Hurt) make perfect sense by the end of the film, as does the way in which she relates the story of the cursed house.
Similarly, the acting is hard to fault. Hudson finally delivers a performance that makes us remember why we originally took to her in Almost Famous. Rowlands is both menacing and strangely touching -- and does for cutting up poultry what Piper Laurie did for carrot chopping in Carrie. Hurt and Sarsgaard are both fine, but the film really belongs to the ladies.
Ultimately, The Skeleton Key is a missed opportunity, but one with enough rewards along the way to make it worth seeing in spite of itself.
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke