Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Skeleton Key

THE SKELETON KEY (Iain Softley, 2005)

Hospice nurse Caroline Ellis, played by Kate Hudson, is tiring of what she sees as an uncaring system. In THE SKELETON KEY, Caroline accepts a lucrative opportunity to care for a stroke victim (John Hurt) at his big home in Louisiana swampland. She gets to provide more personal care than she could at the facility and has just an hour’s drive back to her friends and the night life in New Orleans. The patient’s wife, Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), is a little eccentric—she insists that no mirrors hang on the walls—but otherwise the job fits her fine until she finds a hoodoo room in the attic. The lady of the house claims to have never been in the room, which was used by the previous owner’s servants. Caroline’s friend reassures her that hoodoo is a harmless regional custom. Curious nonetheless, Caroline dabbles in hoodoo and begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the Devereaux home.

THE SKELETON KEY conjures a spooky atmosphere steeped in the mystique of folk magic and medicine and suspicion of the deep South. (Scratchy, old records, especially if blues albums or incantation recordings, are also scary!) In the film, hoodoo is explained as being powerless against those who do not believe. Director Iain Softley plays with the idea in fun ways, turning a routine chase into a match of wits with brick dust. In the years since her Oscar-nominated ALMOST FAMOUS role, Hudson has yet to find a character as interesting as Penny Lane. Hudson gives a credible performance in a thankless part as a caregiver who comes to believe she and her patient need protection from the supernatural. Due to a minimal cast of characters, THE SKELETON KEY leaves little room for surprise, save for a final twist that unnecessarily stretches out the conclusion and plays like a screenwriting gimmick. Ultimately, Softley’s deft handling of tone and Hudson’s effective portrayal compensate for THE SKELETON KEY’S less original and expected moments.

Grade: B-

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 16, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

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