Minor Spoilers Ahead!
We, as a society, have become awfully forgiving in what we consider “horror” these days. The genre’s slide in popularity started, in part, thanks to an unending torrent of brain-dead Freddy and Jason movies. Next, the PG-13 rating became the norm for horror, effectively emasculating new releases even before critics had a chance to savage them. Today, the few R-rated studio horror movies that are released are hamstrung by lousy publicity (Land of the Dead), feeble release patterns (Devil’s Rejects), or are dumped with little fanfare and soon forgotten (Seed of Chucky).
Of course, the fact that “The Skeleton Key” is PG-13 hasn’t kept Universal from hyping it as “the scariest movie you’ll see all year.” And at first glance, it would appear to have several factors in its favor: an eerie Louisiana setting, lots of rain/water (writer Ehren Kruger has plenty of practice with this after penning both American “Ring” adaptations), and Kate Hudson, a woman who actually had a child with that hairy guy from the Black Crowes. Creepy.
Hudson plays Caroline, a hospice nurse in New Orleans who takes a job out in the sticks providing care for elderly stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt, earning the easiest paycheck of his career since “Watership Down”). Ben’s wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) is initially unenthusiastic about the prospect, and demonstrates the bad temper that apparently caused Ben’s previous caretakers to leave the job. Caroline eventually settles in, and Violet provides her with the titular skeleton key that allows the young woman access to the entire house.
Naturally, Caroline can’t avoid snooping around in the Devereaux’ creaky attic, where she discovers a secret room replete with strange diagrams, sinister sounding LPs, and the requisite jars of weird organs. Investigating further, she learns these are all trappings of the dreaded “hoodoo” religion (voodoo being a walk in the park by contrast, we’re told). Violet also divulges some of the house’s less than savory history, leading Caroline to suspect Ben didn’t have a stroke at all, but has fallen victim to a spell of some sort. But cast by whom? A ghost? His wife? The friendly lawyer? And will Caroline be able to get Ben to safety before their evil plan comes to fruition?
“Psychological horror” is generally Hollywood code speak for “boring,” especially when the film in question is PG-13. That isn’t the case here, for “The Skeleton Key” isn’t exactly dull (the word most likely to be used in reviews is “languorous”), but it isn’t scary either. Oh, it’s pretty enough. Director Iain Softley has a nice eye for the sinister, and stuff like voodoo or hoodoo or whatever the hell you want to call it has a visceral spookifying effect on most of us, but there isn’t a single moment here that causes dread or genuine fright. If anything, “The Skeleton Key” is more of a thriller, albeit one that takes its sweet time getting to the conclusion.
Fortunately, the movie features an honest-to-Baron Samedi ending, unlike so many others of its ilk. Not another “Is he dead? Yes! Wait, no!” anti-climax. Not another “Whew, everything worked out okay and…holy s**t, something just came out of nowhere and grabbed the heroine!” fake-out. Everything gets wrapped up nicely, and for that, I thank you, Mr. Softley. Unfortunately, other than the setting and the resolution, there’s little here to spark much interest. Like the character of Ben, “The Skeleton Key” just sort of…lies there.
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