Buoyed by Gena Rowlands’ magisterial presence, this mediocre little bit of hoodoo-voodoo mystery casts enough of a spell to propel it through the trancelike lethargy of the first 80 minutes until it double, double, toils and troubles to reach its frenzy of a finale. “Skeleton Key” is neither magic nor mundane but for some it will unlock a satisfying enough set of twists and turns for a summer escape into a bayou thriller.
Loaded up on the guilt of losing her beloved but estranged father, Caroline (Kate Hudson) is candy-striping herself toward atonement. She ditches her job at a New Orleans hospice to take care of Ben (John Hurt), a stroke victim, living out his last days with wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) in a spooky manor house, an hour outside of the city and a hundred years outside civilization. After poking further into the house than privacy dictates, Caroline realizes that the mansion’s macabre history might have some bearing on her future and that Violet has no intention of giving her the true skeleton key to unlock the mystery of the past.
Hudson does a decent job of playing a part that at times begs for disbelief to be suspended a bit beyond the stretching point. Peter Sarsgaard plays family lawyer, Luke, with a spot-on blend of practicality and Southern bonhomie. It is Rowlands, however, who steals scenes with her tough-as-nails, genteel belle presence and makes the story credible.
Director Iain Softley pares down the ingredients in this potentially complex mix of themes and superstitions, until the movie is nothing but lean, hard plot. Seemingly distrustful of his audience’s ability to stay focused on the story, the sparseness of the characters mean that everybody has a role to play and every utterance is a clue to the mystery of the house. He does not spare much thought for originality of setting – the attic is the archetypal black magic lair with old jars of floating things, spell books and albums – and lulls the audience with familiar signs (a blind woman full of bayou wisdom, a cautious roommate) down the road to get to the final twist of an ending.
Parents should be aware that this movie is borderline horror, with many scenes of peril, and it touches on mature themes. In flashbacks to the early 1900’s, the story of a lynching is shown and the crowd responsible is a drunken mob, too well-heeled to be punished. Hospice care, the death of family members who were loved or shunned, as well as the difficulty of caring for ailing kin are all issues covered in the movie. The belief –or not—in superstition and “hoodoo” (voodoo’s non-religious, folk-magic counterpart) is a central theme of the movie. Partial, non-explicit nudity scenes include a scantily-clad woman, a character in the shower and another in the bath. The overall Spanish-moss laden spookiness of the isolated mansion, with hidden secrets, will scare more sensitive viewers, as will some of the Gothic residents of the nearby bayou. There are the obligatory jars of yucky things in bottles to signify dark magic. There is an implicit reference to spousal abuse. Characters smoke and drink socially. A night of excessive drinking leads to bloodshed.
Families who see this movie might discuss the impact on Caroline of losing her father and the ways this loss guides her guilt, her choice of profession, not to mention her actions. The theme of “hoodoo” provokes questions about what superstitions you might believe in, whether there are paranormal things that you believe can protect or hurt you. The “evil eye”, for example, is a theme in cultures throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Even though few people say they believe in it, the blue-glass eyes, red-string bracelets and the eye-within-the-hand-motif, all symbols to ward off this curse, have never been more popular in jewelry and decoration. Why do some people in this movie choose not to leave even though they say they do not believe?
Families who enjoy this movie might like “K-PAX”, also directed by Softley and featuring a similar pace and prettiness, if radically different themes.
For those looking for a genuinely scary, horror/suspense flick with voodoo themes might watch “Angel Heart” (mature content). Other recent supernatural thrillers include “Constantine” and “Dream Catchers”.