[box cover]

The Skeleton Key

Here are a few nice things we can say about 2005's The Skeleton Key:

  • You might be surprised by this supernatural bayou thriller's very final twist — even if it did follow an endless string of "surprises" that any horror-movie fan could block out on a cork board with index cards.
  • Also, Kate Hudson — playing a live-in hospice caretaker sucked into a world of Louisiana folk magic — looks extremely fetching in a pair of bun-hugging underwear. (We only point this out because director Iain Softley points it out, and repeatedly; the helmer who brought us "K-PAX" and "Hackers" seems hell-bent on delivering hilariously gratuitous shots of said bun-huggers throughout the film.)
  • And, underwear shots aside, The Skeleton Key just looks splendid. The thrust of the film is that Hudson's character takes a $1,000/week job in the Louisiana sticks, caring for a stroke victim (John Hurt) whose wife (Gena Rowlands) may or may not be using hoodoo potions to keep him in a paralytic state. But of course, Rowlands lives in a rotting swampland mansion, and of course Hudson's growing suspicions lead her into swampy back rooms filled with chicken bones and dusty books and old records and pickle jars full of grott. It allows cinematographer Daniel Mindel to revel in the moist decay of the Louisiana bayou and the dark contours of Rowlands' house.

Unfortunately, the rest of this review is about "room for improvement." Because after getting off to a decent, somewhat muted start, The Skeleton Key just gets sillier and sillier and sillier until it's yet another one of those stupid, noisy thrillers where everyone's running around in a house, yelling and falling down, and you're mostly wondering why nobody bothered to call the cops sooner. The script is by Ehren Kruger, who did such a marvelous job adapting The Ring, but who may be stretching himself a bit thin these days. According to the Internet Movie Database, Mr. Kruger has no fewer than five screenplays attached to 2005 release dates, including the insipid The Ring Two. Which may explain why The Skeleton Key is downright sloppy at times: It telegraphs suspense, piles on cheap, fake-out scares, and inspires questions when it really ought to suspend disbelief. For example: If you suspected your patient was being poisoned and held prisoner — somewhere between the HELP ME scrawled on the bedsheet and the part where he grabs you and croaks, "Get me out of here!" — would you really go to a witch doctor instead of, say, the police, or at least a really burly social worker? And also: Why does Kate Hudson tell the paralyzed man sitting next to her to "hang on" when she's about to crash her car? Hang on with what? His piercing gaze? But maybe that's just nitpicking. The real problems here are characterization and overkill. As written, Hudson's nurse simply isn't likable: After a day or two on the job, she glowers, barges into locked rooms, and makes demands of Rowlands (who's stuck saying "Fiddlesticks!" over and over) with the sense of entitlement of a movie star, not a hospice worker. Meanwhile, Softley and his battalion of sound designers and musicians simply can't leave a spooky moment alone. Even listening to a scratchy old LP, eerie in itself, has to be "helped along" by a soundtrack stuffed with atonal violin playing and needless creaks. And unfortunately, when everything in a movie is lit, shot and scored to be "creepy," nothing is.

Universal's DVD release of The Skeleton Key offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in English, French, and Spanish. Supplements include a commentary with director Iain Softley, a deleted scenes reel with optional director's commentary (21 min.), and the featurettes "Behind the Locked Door: Making The Skeleton Key" (5 min.) and "Casting The Skeleton Key" (9 min.). Eight more featurettes round out the set, all running between two and six minutes — "Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo," "Recipe & Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo," "Blues in the Bayou," "Kate Hudson's Ghost Story," "Plantation Life," "John Hurt's Story," "A House Called Felicity," and "Gena's Love Spell." Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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