The Skeleton Key Review

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a young nurse working in a retirement home in New Orleans who finds herself disillusioned by the lack of interest shown by the living relatives of those who pass away within the home. In searching for a private nursing position, which will let her care for a patient within a more loving environment, she answers an advertisement in the local paper and begins a period of employment at a decaying mansion outside of the city. Her patient is Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) who had recently suffered from a stroke and doesn't have long to live. Along with his wife, Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), John lives a quiet life and Caroline moves in, believing that the position will last some weeks, maybe months, until John passes away.

Soon, though, Caroline begins to see that caring for John Devereaux is not what she expected it to be. Instead of him being paralysed as everyone, including Violet, had led her to believe, she finds that John has crawled out on the roof of his home one rainy night, leaving behind a sheet with, "HELP ME" written upon it. Add to that the lack of mirrors in the house, the belief in voodoo that remains strong in the area and a locked door in the attic that not even the skeleton key given to her by Violet appears to be able to open and Caroline senses a mystery in the old house. Soon, though, she hears a scratching on the far side of the locked door in the attic and gets an ill feeling the relationship between Violet and John, promising to rescue one from the other. The truth, though, is stranger still.

Ian Softley, the director of The Skeleton Key, manages, for more than the first half of the film, to effortlessly mix a sense of the Southern gothic into his film that it's a joy to watch. Within minutes of the beginning of the film, Kate Hudson makes us believe in her wish for something better, so much so that we can see her disappointment in disposing of yet another box of personal effects when the home in which she works receives word from the relatives of a dead patient that they will not be collecting the body. It's this search for meaning in her life that gives The Skeleton Key more substance beyond being simply a suitably atmospheric telling of a rather spooky tale. That said, it's particularly good even at that, using the southern setting of the film to unnerve the viewer. On its twisting trip through New Orleans, we take in voodoo and its distant relative hoodoo, a dusty old shop selling chicken bones and assorted other oddities and a deserted petrol station through which Caroline wanders oblivious to the jump that we know is coming when the weird, inbred owner steps out of the shadows to tap her, and us, on the shoulder.

This is typical stuff of a horror movie but at its best, The Skeleton Key convinces the viewer to ignore the lack of any logic in the film and to simply enjoy the journey into the dark heart of southern magic. Without giving much away, the sudden, shocking movements by the supposedly paralysed John Devereaux are never explained so much as they are only part of a bigger story that is only revealed in the film's final twist. Similarly and with no real reason, we are led down storylines that go nowhere, revelations that turn out merely to be red herrings and an escape from the mansion that proves to be nothing of the sort. There are recordings of delta blues - Robert Johnson, naturally, who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil on a crossroads at midnight - of magic and of ancient conjurings but what matters and what doesn't is only revealed in the film's final minutes.

I so wanted to like The Skeleton Key, though, that I could forgive it much if the finale turned out to be a disappointment. Not even a slight disappointment, mind, but even one that turned all of the events that preceded it on their head. What couldn't be forgiven, though, was Softley taking The Skeleton Key into the territory mined in the last few years by Dark Castle production company, namely Ghost Ship and the remakes of The House On Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts. The jump cuts and flashbacks to a lynching in the grounds of the old house were like nothing so much as the taking over of the asylum in The House On Haunted Hill and despite the care taken to build up a picture of faded southern charm that occasionally sidesteps into menace, the final half hour or so does The Skeleton Key no favours. Softley has revealed himself before now to be a thoughtful director and much of this is again revealed in Caroline's search for something to put her faith in, be it family, church or magic, but when the script gives him so little to end with, he draws the film to an unsatisfying conclusion.

That said, there's still a worthwhile twist in the tail of the story that only a few will have guessed before it comes. It does, though, highlight the presence of such an ending early on so much of the film is spent trying to guess at what it might be. As well as the ending itself, that feeling of needing to double-guess the film is infuriating and is reminiscent of nothing so much as Scooby Doo, wherein the handful of clues left by the monster serve only to confuse before Scooby and the gang pull off its mask to reveal someone that the audience could not possibly have guessed. Prior to that, The Skeleton Key is a very decent chiller but when it tries too hard, with all manner of supposed endings and clues, the careful setting of the opening acts becomes wasted on an ending that says nothing but, "Gotcha!" A pity, then, and all the more so for doing the southern gothic thing so well in the first hour that I couldn't help but enjoy it.


The Skeleton Key has enjoyed a very flattering transfer with the shadows and dark palette of the film making the journey onto DVD with nothing so much as a hitch. Detail is excellent, the picture is sharp and there's very little digital noise, at least not until one looks very closely.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is very good indeed and how good it is to say that, given the importance of the audio track to an effective supernatural thriller. Not only is the soundtrack clean and crisp but it also makes excellent use of the surround channels to set up a suitably creepy stage for the visuals. In particular, the rainstorm has rain and thunder booming around the viewer, even within which the dialogue is clear and perfectly understandable.

It is also good to report that not only is the film subtitled but so too are the special features and the commentary, including that which accompanies the Deleted Scenes.


Commentary: Ian Softley is on his own for this track that sees him discuss his reasons for making the film, which begins well but soon drifts into dry facts with an increasing amount of gaps as the film progresses. It would have been preferable and more succinct had Softley simply selected a number of scenes and talked about them to camera, adding footage from the film where necessary. Be warned, though, that Softley discusses the twist ending throughout this commentary and is often at his best when doing so.

Deleted Scenes (21m41s): Available with a commentary from Ian Softley, this collection of deleted scenes are presented letterboxed within a 4:3 frame and don't really offer anything that suggests the finished film is incomplete. There is, for example, an alternate opening but it doesn't feel as right as the one that opens the completed film and, similarly, the rest look as though they were correctly trimmed from the final cut, including a voodoo ceremony that would have been much too obvious within the finished film.

Making The Skeleton Key (5m27s): Given the length of this feature, you can be sure that very little about the actual production will be given away and so it comes to pass. There are interviews with the stars as well as the director but no one says anything outside of the typical fluff that goes along with publicising the film, which is particularly annoying here as half the running time passes before you realise they've barely touched anything beyond a short pass over the plot of the film.

Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo (4m16s): Interested in watching someone dance with a snake above their head? Then this is the right feature, which not only offers glimpses of voodoo ceremonies whilst concluding nothing more than there being too much to learn in one lifetime. Hoodoo, on the other hand, is more a collection of magic but which has less to do with religion, eventually being spoken about in the same breath as witchery as it moved north.

Recipe & Ritual (3m22s): Subtitled Making The Perfect Gumbo and shot in the manner of Get Stuffed on the old late-night strand on ITV, this offers up one recipe that involves much seafood and offal and takes, if I was following this correct, at least four hours to cook. That alone is enough to put one off ever cooking what looks like a particularly unappetising stew without ever needing to mention the chicken feet that are tossed in with the turkey necks and various other unsavoury animal parts.

Blues In The Bayou (6m11s): Anyone hoping for six minutes on Robert Johnson or Leadbelly will be sorely disappointed by this, which features only the more recent music that was recorded for the film. As in the terrible fusion of jazz and hip-hop that blunders onto the soundtrack between the spooked blues playing in Ben Devereaux's bedroom.

Kate Hudson's Ghost Story (2m36): Goldie Hawn sucks cock in Hell? Not quite, as her daughter talks about seeing orbs in a house in London and about the spirit of a little boy who haunted it. Yvette Fielding would be proud of her.

Plantation Life (3m36s): Norman Marmillion and Stan Waguespack are owners of plantations outside of New Orleans and are on hand to explain the history of their buildings and of the first slaves brought to America from Senegal. Norman, and this is the most interesting piece of the feature, explains the finances of the slave trade, explaining that the average slave earned $500 a year in today's money but that they would need $25,000 to buy themselves out of their contract.

Casting The Skeleton Key (9m15s): Ian Softley and the stars of the film are interviewed regarding the casting of the film and how they enjoyed, or not, the making of the film.

John Hurt's Story (3m31s): No's John Hurt and he's lying in bed, in make-up, and reading a story from Voices From Slavery about a man who, when aged only five, found himself the property of a boy only two years old.

A House Called Felicity (5m20s): The Waguespacks, the owners of the Felicity Plantation, are back to add to this feature, which describes how the film was shot on location rather than on a closed set. This included the creation of a swamp in a field as well as the building of various outhouses for the

Gena's Love Spell (1m21s): In love but alone? Gena Rowlands reads this spell for love and friendship, which will, apparently, end with someone thinking sweet thoughts of you. Best, however, to steer well clear of this witchcraft...they still drown old people in various outlying parts of the country, you know.

Trailers: Two teasers have been included, Red Eye (1m45s) and - joy! - King Kong (2m29s). The former looks like a typically dull chiller from Wes Craven whilst the latter looks superb.


The Skeleton Key is rather a hokey ghost story more akin to The Amityville Horror or The Sixth Sense than, say, the sophisticated chills of The Haunted or the short stories of MR James. Sometimes, though, that's more than enough and although the film promises much in its final twist, you may, like this viewer, come away feeling as though it was little more than a final flourish in the hope of making the film more memorable than it deserved. It's entertaining, though, and providing that you are not expecting a classic ghost story, The Skeleton Key should suffice.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:06:12

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