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Skeleton Key, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/14/07 14:23:04

"Its point doesn't go beyond the twist ending."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

It's a measure of the sad state of horror movies that the first major voodoo film in almost twenty years is another bland PG-13 "thriller" with a big-deal twist ending.

Something must've been in the air back in the late '80s, which saw two voodoo flicks within seven months of each other: 1987's The Believers, in which Martin Sheen's wife faced death by blender in the first five minutes, and 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow, in which Bill Pullman got a nail driven where a man never wants a nail driven. I'm not a fan of either movie, but they had a zesty ludicrousness. The same can't be said for The Skeleton Key, which spends a lot of its time distancing itself from the very subject that ostensibly sets it apart.

Kate Hudson, who just a few years ago seemed poised for better things, is kindly nurse Caroline Ellis, who doesn't like it when her patients die alone and unmourned. So she answers an ad for a caretaker in New Orleans. Her charge is a retired antiques dealer, Ben (John Hurt), who suffered a debilitating stroke in his attic and is not expected to live much longer. Ben's wife Violet (Gena Rowlands, whose choice of good projects has fallen tragically since John Cassavetes died) seems vaguely sinister; she is described as "old South" despite not having much of an accent. She hires Caroline warily, entrusting her with a key that opens every door in the house except one.

Spooky things happen. Ben seems agitated; he scrawls "HELP ME" on his sheets, then tries to escape out of his second-floor window. Could Violet be trying to kill Ben? Why are all the mirrors in the house locked away? What, if anything, does this have to do with a pair of voodoo practitioners who, back in the '20s, were found trying to teach an ancient ritual to a couple of children and were then lynched? Sadly, I can't answer these questions, but I can ask another one: If a character who has been a nonsmoker throughout the movie dramatically lights a cigarette at the end, wouldn't he or she at least cough a little? Last time I chatted with the Surgeon General, smoke has the same effect on virgin lungs regardless of supernatural influence.

The Skeleton Key might have made for a gripping 44 minutes on The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. Drawn out to an hour and 44 minutes, it dawdles far too long on scenes between Caroline and a nice young lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard), or scenes in which Caroline basically takes a self-taught Voodoo for Dummies course. The problem with voodoo as a movie subject, of course, is that its creepiness comes enfolded in black skin, which might've gone over back in the days of I Walked with a Zombie (1943) but comes off tacky (to say the least) today. The movie, as I said, approaches voodoo glancingly, somewhat reverently, as if to mute the forbidden electricity that voodoo films used to have: Politically correct or not, the terror in the material derived from a white person walking among incomprehensible black people who did incomprehensible things and knew the secrets of death and beyond. The Skeleton Key glides over this by having an old white woman, Violet, as the conduit for supernatural mischief. Then the twist ending twists that around.

Hudson tries, but seems somnambulistic, as if Caroline were afflicted with the walking death even before arriving in New Orleans. Rowlands and Hurt, sadly, must probably take what they can get in the twilight of their careers; in Hurt's case, what he can get amounts to frantic gesticulating and grunting. The scares are very few and far between, the standard musical stings and people popping up where, at this point in horror-film history, you absolutely expect them to be. The voodoo lore is sketchy (it can't hurt unbelievers, except when it can), the plot obviously little but build-up to the big reveal.

'The Sixth Sense' made millions by serving the supernatural with a twist six years ago, and we're still living with the aftermath.

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