THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


About every ten years or so, Hollywood dusts off the voodoo thriller. I don’t generally get into them, because they’re almost always cheap schlock posing as provocative art. The Skeleton Key is a welcome change of pace, though; here’s a B-movie that knows it’s a B-movie, yet is intent on being a really good B-movie. And it is.

Kate Hudson stars as Caroline Ellis, a young hospice nurse in Louisiana. She takes a job caring for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), a stroke victim who can no longer speak or take care of himself. Ben’s overprotective wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) makes no bones about the fact that she doesn’t like Caroline, but her estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), convinces her to stop complaining and accept the help.

Caroline moves into the Devereaux home, a large old plantation surrounded by swamp. Violet gives her a skeleton key that will open any lock in the house. While getting some supplies in the attic, Caroline discovers a tiny little door hidden behind some shelving units. When she eventually works up the nerve to open the door, she finds a “hoodoo room” – a place where black magic is conjured up. Violet initially professes ignorance, but eventually confides that the house’s previous owners had servants who dabbled in hoodoo. (We’re told that hoodoo is like voodoo, but without the religious overtones.) After finding an old record album that supposedly conjures up a magic spell, Caroline comes to believe that something strange is still going on in the house. That feeling is exacerbated by the strange looks Ben keeps giving her…it almost seems like he’s panicking behind his paralyzed face.

At this point, there’s nothing else that can be said about the plot of The Skeleton Key without spoiling it, and I’ve left a lot out anyway. What makes the film fun is not knowing what’s really going on. You try to put the pieces together, but they don’t quite seem to fit until the last five minutes of the movie, when suddenly they all snap into place. In our post-Sixth Sense cinematic world, audiences have become accustomed to looking for the “big surprise” at the end of thrillers. To do so here would be a mistake. Although I certainly didn’t foresee the final plot turn, I think it’s a natural extension of the story rather than a prefabricated stunt designed to pull the rug out from under you. Some thrillers (like The Village) seem to have big surprises just as a marketing gimmick, without regard to actual coherence. The joy of The Skeleton Key is that the ending forces you to reinterpret everything you’ve just seen and to consider the implications for the characters after the screen fades to black.

Director Iain Softley (Wings of the Dove) takes his time setting the story up, and the screenplay by Ehren Kruger (The Ring) carefully lays groundwork that will pay off later. For the first fifteen minutes, it seems as though The Skeleton Key is going to be boring, but once Caroline enters that attic, the film slowly gains momentum, building in suspense the longer it goes on. The main problem with most of the other voodoo thrillers is that they focused too much on the voodoo; it was something used for shock value. This movie, ultimately, is a human story that has voodoo (or hoodoo, or whatever) as a backdrop. That automatically makes it smarter than most of its brethren. The performances here are very good. Gena Rowlands continues to deliver great work in film after film. She’s wonderful as Violet; you never know whether the character is benevolent or slyly evil. John Hurt gives a mostly silent performance; since Ben can’t really move or speak, the actor must convey a lot with only his eyes. This is probably the most difficult thing for a performer to do, and Hurt does it magnificently. I also really liked Kate Hudson. After making such a dazzling breakthrough in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Hudson got stuck in a rut herself, starring in a string of mostly forgettable fluffy romantic comedies. With The Skeleton Key, she flexes her dramatic muscles again. It’s good to see her do something different.

Perhaps bowing to the needs of commercial Hollywood, The Skeleton Key tosses in way too many “false scares” – those moments where someone walks up behind Caroline and startles her, while a sudden shrieking noise blasts from the soundtrack. This is a cheap trick that too many movies use way too often. The standard theatrics are not needed here, but they don’t detract from the fun. There’s a crucial subplot involving Caroline’s initial skepticism of hoodoo slowly giving way to belief. It’s a good metaphor for the movie as a whole. I was skeptical of its potential in the early scenes, but The Skeleton Key gradually made me a believer in its clever approach to the genre.

( out of four)

The Skeleton Key is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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