Caroline, a hospice employee, has had enough of the uncaring environment she works in and responds to an advert for a live in nurse that sounds ideal. The job involves looking after Ben Devereaux, an old man who has been incapacitated by a stroke, unable to communicate with the outside world. Despite his wife Violet’s initial reluctance Caroline soon finds herself moving into their creepy abode in the Louisiana swamplands. It is not long before the strange secrets of the house incite her curiosity and, with the Skeleton Key in hand, she ventures to the mysterious attic room. A course of action that will set her on the path to unravel the mystery of Ben’s condition.
British director Iain Softley’s fifth film is thankfully a move away from the stereotypical Hollywood horror movies which are predominantly lazy variations on slasher films full of attractive teenagers running away from knife wielding masked maniacs. Ehren Kruger’s evocative screenplay is aimed at a more mature audience, an attempted return to more intelligent horror movies such as Don’t Look Now and Rosemary’s Baby to which this film has some superficial similarities. The slow revelations about the history of the house leads to a wonderful climax and the cast are in tune with the intention of the filmmakers.
Kate Hudson gives a self-assured and unstereotypical performance as Caroline; a strong willed woman who has a believable back-story that informs her decisions throughout the film. Her relationship and dedication to Ben’s welfare is particularly well handled, assisted by John Hurt’s strong performance given the limitations the role puts upon him. Gena Rowlands also deserves particular praise for her ambiguous interpretation of Ben’s wife Violet. Joy Bryant in the role of Caroline’s best friend is one of the few genre conceits, basically only on hand to offer some helpful exposition on the mystical cult of Hoodoo.
What lets the film down slightly is Iain Softley’s direction. Undeniably skilled at creating a believable environment and a suitably subtle tone he fails to adequately build the tension, things only really coming together in the final act. The gothic south with its mysterious hoodoo practices, foreboding swamps and gothic domiciles are never portrayed as effectively as they could have been. In fairness there are a few moments in which a palpable sense of dread is created, but the audience should have been kept on the edge of their seat a bit more. The mix of colour and black and white film for the flashbacks doesn’t really work either. On the plus side the score, including such Mississippi delta bluesmen as the legendary Robert Johnson, helps in evoking an authentic sense of place.
The Skeleton Key certainly won’t be a contender for finest film of 2005 but it’s far better than the usual Hollywood horror fare, which seems to now rely on uninspired remakes of Asian chillers. Indeed by rooting the tale in the milieu of the Deep South Softley and screenwriter Kruger have consciously attempted to create a uniquely American ghost story. The cast are uniformly excellent and, as with the best of supernatural thrillers the finale lingers long in the memory after the credits roll.