Buoyed by good performances and alevel of intelligence rarely found in horror flicks, Iain Softley’s“The Skeleton Key” is a moody and effective frightener that runs fromstart to finish with discernment and skill, marred by only theslightest stumble at the finish line.

    When Caroline Ellis leaves herjob at an impersonal hospice to deliver one-on-one care to aging andstroke-afflicted Ben Devereaux in an isolated mansion in the Louisianabayou, she never thought hoodoo would be part of the fringe benefits.But since Caroline “doesn’t believe,” she doesn’t let the creaks andclanks of the old house get her down. Armed with a skeleton key toevery room in the house, Caroline soon discovers a mordant history: anAfrican American slave couple, lynched generations ago by the originalowners for practicing magic, and previous tenants of eccentric andmysterious aspect.

    Ben’s wife, Violet, is no cup oftea, either. Weirdly protective of her bedridden husband and oddlydefensive of herself, Caroline grows to believe that Ben may be thevictim of his wife’s ministrations, not stroke. Caroline shares hersuspicions with affable and attractive Luke, the couple’s young lawyerwho is putting their affairs in order. His homegrown tut-tuts andcome-nows put Caroline in a no-man’s land of uncertainty and wariness.

    Caroline’s old roommate, Jill, adds to the puzzle when she hooksCaroline up with a hoodoo practitioner but then heads for the hills,avowing that she doesn’t believe in that backwoods nonsense. While Jillmayst protest too much, the loudest noise comes from Ben himself. Hispleading eyes let Caroline know something is wrong. When she steps overthe line into hoodoo to help Ben regain his speech, all – includingCaroline herself – is lost. Turns out the lynched slave couple havecontinually possessed male and female co-owners of the house, enticingprospective young bodies as their previous owners’ frames grow old. Ina violent finale, Violet possesses Caroline (who went from rejectinghoodoo to embracing it for Ben’s sake) and is joined by lawyer Luke,who had taken over Luke’s young anatomy long ago. All that’s left isfor lawyer Luke to leave the house to Caroline in Ben and Violet’swill, which he controls.

    As guilt-ridden Caroline, KateHudson (Almost Famous, Raising Helen) has morphed from a righteous babeto an attractive and intelligent young actress. Gena Rowlands is aformidable antagonist, setting the burner low and letting the pot ofevil and deception eventually boil over. John Hurt, of “Alien”chest-exploding fame, plays Ben with a pained and watery-eyed fear thatmakes you wish he had a larger part; unfortunately he is relegated tobed and a supporting role. Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey, Jarhead) scorespoints as the charming devil-in-the-flesh lawyer, and Joy Bryant (GetRich or Die Tryin’) brings charisma to the small part of Caroline’scautious roommate.

    The biggest kudos, however, go tothe fact that the “The Skeleton Key” continually avoids the pitfalls ofmost horror films. The protagonist asks intelligent questions and thendemands relevant answers; she phones the police when she should; sheprotects herself in ways that are believable and common to the generalhuman populace. She doesn’t scream – not once. She defends herself asbest she knows how, given the information to which she has access. Howwas she supposed to know that hoodoo was real?

    The script by Ehren Kruger(Brothers Grimm, The Ring), who has been a writing machine sincewinning the Nicholl Fellowship five or six years ago for “ArlingtonRoad,” provides a smart and emotionally involving basis for excellentsuspense/horror filmmaking. Direction, photography and editing (IainSoftley, Daniel Mindel, Joe Hutshing) all work to tell the story ratherthan telegraph it, trusting the script and the actors to put across thefear and loathing that is necessary to engross an audience.Particularly effective were the keyhole-pov camera-work, and theongoing visual device of tumblers clicking open and closed within lockmechanisms. And who knew a Laundromat could be scary? It is when it isbacked-up by a hoodoo pharmacy, and these filmmakers prove it. My onlyreal complaint is that at the end of the film, the slave couple (nowinhabiting Caroline and Luke) talk too much and explain what justhappened.

    All told, “The SkeletonKey” unlocks a horde of hard-to-find film treasures: intelligence,respect for the audience, and style in service of story. If theseingredients possessed more films, people would still be going to themovies.
    TheSkeleton Key DVD has enough bonus material to fill a swamp - and that's where some of it belongs. (Sorry, I had to make that cheap joke.)

    I always look for "The Making of" featurettes, but TSK's "making of"was cursory, with an abrupt ending that feels like they ran out of filmor inclination. This is also true for "The Casting of TSK," whichconsists primarily of gushing over Ms. Hudson. The "Blues in the Bayou"feature was interesting, populated by local New Orleans musicians andmusic. The "Plantation Life" feature was truly informative, butsomewhat out-of-place; a serious look into the history and life (orlack thereof) of Louisiana slaves seems somehow patronizing in a filmthat uses slaves solely as a narrative device, using them with aslittle care and feeling as "Hellraiser" used English army colonels. Butperhaps any chance to be reminded of the good ole USA's reprehensiblehistory on this point is time well spent.

    "A House Called Felicity" focuses on TSK's location plantation, withcomments from Director Softley and Production Designer John Beard onthe pros and cons (mostly pros) of location filming. Always interestingto see the hammering and nailing behind all that purty color andmovement. The fact that Beard literally built from scratch the swampthat is used in the film (it was initially a grassy field) is an itemof small amazement - sure looked like a real swamp to me.

    Kate Hudson is strong-armed into telling her personal ghost story fromage 8, and John Hurt for some reason reads a first-person slaveaccount.  Again, that disquieting feeling of "how does thisseriousness fit in with a completely socially unconscious film?" rises.You'd have to ask the producers. It was nice to see Hurt in "reallife," talkative and active, after seeing him laid up as the characterBen. What can I say? I worry about the guy.

    Best of all was Gena Rowlands' reading of a Hoodoo Love Potion. Putyour and your loved one's names on opposite sides of popsicle stick,drop it in a jar filled with sugar and honey, then seal it up and shakeit; with every shake, repeat a phrase that your beau-to-be will thinksweet thoughts of you. I'm going to try it. Don't surprised if you seean "Inquirer" headline that Julia Roberts has fallen in love with anunknown New York film buff and internet movie reviewer.

    (-Steve Wisniewski-)

    |, 2005 |