Worth A Look: 19.75%
Just Average: 23.46%
Pretty Crappy: 34.57%
7 reviews, 39 user ratings
|Skeleton Key, The
by Doug Bentin
For some reason, we’re getting a daily double of Cajun Country Cut-Up this season with “The Skeleton Key” now and “Venom” slithering out of the Hollywood swamps next month. I haven’t been injected with “Venom” yet but last night I did re-watch the “Gone With the Wind” of Louisiana Gothic, “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” for a DVD review and was surprised at how many of its elements were borrowed by director Iain Softley and screenwriter Ehren Kruger for “The Skeleton Key.”Kate Hudson, thankfully with most of the perky squeezed out of her, stars as Caroline Ellis, a nurse’s aide who works at an eldercare hospice in New Orleans. As the film opens, she is reading “Treasure Island” to an old man hovering on the brink. To borrow a line from W.C. Fields, he’s at death’s door and she pulls him through. Upset at the callousness of her employers when they tell her to toss his stuff into the dumpster, Caroline finds an ad for a live-in job caring for a stroke victim about an hour out of town.
Okay, I have to stop the action here to admit that I thought the movie was already going south during this opening sequence. Here’s a touch more honesty—I’m not all that fond of Kate Hudson. As a comic actress, she leaves me cold. Her attempt at multiple characters in the waterlogged “Alex & Emma” was even more embarrassing than her stalwart Edwardian heroine from “The Four Feathers.” There’s just no need for acting that peanut-gallery in major American films.
So when the old guy dies while Caroline is reading “Treasure Island,” my thought was, man, the movie’s not four minutes old and someone’s already died from a Kate Hudson performance.
Now that I’ve oozed that bit of sarcasm out of my system, let me admit that this is the best performance Hudson has yet given in a serious role. Maybe her gift is for melodrama and not comedy. Just because her mother got famous playing for laughs, that doesn’t mean the fallen apple is next to the tree trunk.
Anyway, Caroline contacts the stroke victim’s lawyer, a suitably oily Peter Sarsgaard, and he introduces her to the old guy’s wife Violet (Gena Rowland). Caroline is told that the strokee Ben (John Hurt) went up to the attic for something where he had his attack. Violet sends Caroline to go poking around up there—she is sent to find some packets of seeds stored there instead of in the gardener’s shed--and the young woman finds a hidden door. The skeleton key Violet gave won’t open it, but there is something behind it, rattling the knob, emitting bright beams of light that shine under the door, and making whoosing noises. We never do find out what the thing is. We’re supposed to know what it is, but when you think about the movie’s trickier bits you realize that the screenwriter got it all wrong. Either that or he was just interested in presenting us with a phony scare. This is a movie with way too many phony scares.
Anyway, Ben can’t speak or move, except he moves well enough to crawl out the window and across the roof in a storm before falling into the mud below. No, he couldn’t wait for a rainless evening because this picture has more dark and stormy nights than the complete novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Also empty rocking chairs that move on the porch, and spooky-looking statues of saints, and faces of ghosts that appear in mirrors. Every haunted house cliché, in fact, but the rusty swing set on the lawn that squeaks when the wind blows. You know the drill.
So soon Caroline gets the message from Ben that Violet is trying to kill him. We don’t know why but the how seems to be that she’s drugging him. It’s hard to believe, but we even get one of those scenes at dinner during which the two women, each suspicious of the other, try to slip a mickey into the other’s drink. This is the kind of thing that just might get you to grin when you see it done by the Bowery Boys, but this is the 21st. Century, kids, and this gag went out with clutching hands coming out from behind secret panels, and real eyes peering out from creepy portraits.
Director of photography Dan Mindel and production designer John Beard do a nice job of creating a wet and creepy atmosphere. In fact, if the movie had a better pay off than it does the atmospherics might have pulled the plow.
I wish it had worked. I thought it was going to. It’s hard to pinpoint why it didn’t.
Softley and Kruger pull off the neat trick of coaxing you into believing that A is going to happen and making you think that you have arrived at the solution to the mystery ahead of the script, while all the time they are suckering you along. I bought into the ruse, figuring all along that I knew where the story was headed only to realize in the last reel that I’d been snookered. I should have walked away Stinging with that glow that comes to you when you’ve been royally had by a clever screenplay and direction that palms the aces in full view of the audience.
But this time it didn’t happen because Kruger’s script cheated. I can’t go into the reasons I think so any more explicitly. If you see the picture, you’ll know what I mean.
Also, as the plot begins to get too weighty, the actors ratchet up the histrionics. Even Hurt, who only gets to mumble a couple of lines, becomes laughably melodramatic with his frightened eyes and painfully twisted mouth, and Softley’s flashbacks to show us where the ghosts came from just don’t cut it at all.
“The Skeleton Key” is a scary movie for people who don’t really like scary movies. The young woman sitting on my left grabbed her fella’s arm and gasped when she was supposed to, but the film didn’t hold her attention so completely she forgot to check her cell phone for messages every ten minutes or so.“The Skeleton Key” almost works. The spirits are willing but the flash is weak.
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originally posted: 08/25/05 09:55:46