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SKELETON KEY, THE (director: Iain Softley; screenwriter: Ehren Kruger; cinematographer: Dan Mindel; editor: Joe Hutshing; music: Edward Shearmur; cast: Kate Hudson) (Caroline), Gena Rowland (Violet), John Hurt (Ben), Peter Sarsgaard (Luke), Joy Bryant (Jill); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Daniel Bobker, Iain Softley, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher; Universal; 2005)
“It’s all a lot of hoodoo.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s all a lot of hoodoo (a form of folksy voodoo magic born in the South). Britisher Iain Softley (“K-PAX”) directs this weakly conceived Southern Gothic haunted house tale that’s penned by Ehren Kruger (provided the scripts for Arlington Road and Scream 3). The film is marred like all the other films scripted by Kruger with heavy doses of superficiality and a totally unbelievable twist ending. It results in a tawdry shocker that is more tedious than scary and more risible than entertaining.

The bland Kate Hudson is asked to carry the film as the gutsy 25-year-old New Orleans hospice caretaker named Caroline Ellis, who has been hired by gentlemanly Old South estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) to reside in a rundown mansion out in the swamps (about an hour away from New Orleans) to care for catatonic stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt). Transplanted from Hoboken, New Jersey, Caroline quit her hospice job in New Orleans to take this live-in position because the hospice was run as a business and no one cared if the patients died. She also has a guilt-complex because she abandoned her father over a spat, and he recently died without her comforting him. Wheelchair-bound and unable to talk (What a waste of Hurt’s talent, as arguably the film’s best actor, with the best diction, is given no dialogue!) Ben has been cared for by his overbearing and sinister wife Violet (Gena Rowlands). The bossy old lady tries to spook the caretaker out and prevent her from taking the job and when she does, after the smooth lawyer talks her into it, she’s given a skeleton key that can open up every door in the house. Caroline asks Violet why the skeleton key can’t open a door to a room in the attic and why no mirrors are in the house, and soon becomes more interested in the mysterious nature surrounding the house than taking care of her patient. Caroline becomes fascinated with the story that comes with the house about back in the old days (sometime pre-1962) when a rich banker lived here and during a 1920s-like party his guests helped him lynch two black servants named Papa Justify and Mama Cecile for teaching his children about hoodoo. At one juncture Ben tightly grabs her wrists and she notices “help me!’ is printed on a pillowcase, which somehow is erased when she shows the pillowcase to the lawyer. Our heroine continues to play sleuth and is too late to help the bed-ridden Ben who crawls onto the porch roof from his second-floor bedroom and falls; but the soft muddy ground prevents a serious injury. Lucky for all those electrical storms that pop up in the film whenever more spooky atmosphere is required.

The heart of the story revolves around Caroline suspecting that Violet is responsible for Ben’s condition, as wifey has become a practitioner of hoodoo. Caroline spends more time back in the Big Easy with her roommate Jill (Joy Bryant) to get a quickie self-education course in hoodoo from a woman she’s introduced to named Mama Cynthia. When the curious Caroline explores the forbidden attic room, she discovers skulls, covered mirrors, pickled jars of body parts, and comes away with a phonograph record of the black servants telling of conjuring up evil spirits. She goes to lawyer boy for help instead of contacting the authorities or just getting another gig (which any reasonably intelligent person would do).

The film takes a long time (at least it seemed long to me!) to get to its twisty ending to see if it could save this failed venture. But the ending is even worse than the setup and the hammy acting from Rowlands, the limited performances by the talented Hurt and Sarsgaard, and the unconvincing performance by the heroine Hudson, who seems to act best when writhing in her skivvies, left this supernatural thriller without much thrills but lots of gumbo to fill your plate.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”