In a change of pace from the current creepy kids/dark-haired specters subgenre so popular today, "The Skeleton Key" harkens back to the old-fashioned supernaturally-laced thriller where what you didn't see, or barely saw, was supposed to put far more shivers up the viewer's back than a barrage of violence and bloodshed. Directed with a sumptuous elegance by Iain Softley (2001's "K-PAX
"), the film moves at a deliberate pace, the story unraveling itself little by little until—wait for it—the big twist ending. In the case of "The Skeleton Key," that last-minute surprise unveiling is more clever than actually satisfying, making the picture a slow, somewhat involving buildup to practically nothing.
Kate Hudson (2003's "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
") packs up her effervescent 1000-watt smile and puts it in the closet for safe keeping to play 25-year-old Caroline Ellis, a nurturing hospice worker who moves out to the bayou on the outskirts of New Orleans to care for elderly invalid Ben Devereaux (John Hurt). After being given a skeleton key by Ben's opinionated wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), that unlocks any door within the mansion, curiosity leads her up into the house's attic. It is there that she discovers a hidden room, supposedly never opened by the current residents, that contains a mecca of voodoo paraphernalia once belonging to a married pair of hoodoo practitioners killed in the 1920s. Caroline, initially a disbeliever of folk magic, begins to suspect there might be some truth to it when Violet claims Ben was harmed by the spirits, and Caroline subsequently senses that the mute Ben is genuinely horrified by something or someone lurking in the house.
Written by Ehren Kruger (2005's "The Ring Two
"), "The Skeleton Key" is a prime example of mood over substance. Gaining mileage out of being filmed on location in New Orleans and gorgeously shot with a whole lot of foreboding Deep South texture by cinematographer Dan Mindel (2003's "Stuck on You
"), the picture is suitably atmospheric and aesthetically layered. Small details—a creaking rocking chair on the mansion's front porch, a shaking locked door leading to the abandoned voodoo hideaway—display director Iain Softley's know-how of the thriller genre, while other elements, like the almost nonstop thunderstorms that underscore the most heightened of scenes and the predictable false jump scares, fulfill the requirements of the genre even as they are nearly as cliched as one can get. Nevertheless, the film looks great and sounds great (some haunting old southern folk music plays a part in the goings-on).
Regrettably, all of the expert style in the world usually cannot make up for a story that isn't up to snuff, and that is where "The Skeleton Key" falls into a trap it never pulls itself from. Simply put, the plot is a threadbare, even cheesy, one, and the spooky excitement the film ultimately promises all along never reaches fruition. The rainstorm-swept climax is good for some passing suspense at the onset, but it misguidedly starts to remind much more of a tiresome fill-in-the-blank-from-hell thriller like "Fatal Attraction" or "Cold Creek Manor
" than a classy ghost tale (think 2001's "The Others
" or 1999's "The Sixth Sense
") as it should have been aiming for. The payoff is underwhelming to say the least; while the surprise ending refreshingly takes a more downbeat path than usual and manages to not feel like a retread of other movies, it betrays the audience's rooting interest in the lead character and renders what has come before as fruitless.
In a departure from her usual light romantic comedy roles, Kate Hudson is riveting and oh-so-serious as protagonist Caroline Ellis. She makes for a believable, resourceful, likable heroine, even when she is constantly walking slowly into rooms she shouldn't be and going to investigate strange noises. As the mysterious Deveareauxs whom Caroline moves in with, Gena Rowlands (2004's "The Notebook
") brings richness and humor to, without giving anything away, a stock role, and John Hurt (2004's "Hellboy
") does what he can with Ben, who is mostly called upon to either look scared or be borderline-catatonic. Also turning up in key supporting turns are Peter Sarsgaard (2004's "Garden State
") as the Devereaux's approachable lawyer, Luke, and Joy Bryant (2002's "Antwone Fisher
") as Caroline's best friend, Jill. Bryant is very good—maybe too good—for an obligatory part where all she has to do is listen to Caroline's problems and give her advice.
"The Skeleton Key" offers enough eerie surrounding ambiance to keep the viewer intrigued, even as the film both doesn't delve deep enough into its subject matter and, finally, dissolves into a lot of overwrought silliness. A second-rate suspenser dressed in sleek top-of-the-line clothing, the film is rarely, if ever, genuinely frightening, and the characters as written lack the complexity needed to make what they are going through more than just a lot of flashy emptiness. "The Skeleton Key" has its merits, most of them of the visual and aural variety, but thrill-seekers looking for a reason to keep their lights on at bedtime, and the rest of audiences in search of something to think about afterwards, are bound to walk out feeling more than a little gypped.