Not Much Meat On These Bones
Now, Universal’s pre-release ad campaign for this flick was so inflated with self-importance that I must confess to being a little predisposed to finding fault with it. I’m used to people throwing around comparisons to The Sixth Sense whenever a movie has some sort of mindfuck twist ending. (Remember The Others, anyone?) But when you’re daring enough to compare your movie to Rosemary’s Baby you’re setting yourself up against some mighty imposing criteria.
And the fact of the matter is that The Skeleton Key just doesn’t have the chops to come away from any of those comparisons looking good.
Kate Hudson gives a committed performance as Caroline Ellis, a would-be nurse who’s working as a hospice care worker while she fumbles through some barely suppressed issues about her absence during her own father’s illness and death. Her transferal onto the dying men she cares for is rendered with the same ham-handed lack of subtlety that keeps the film from ever being as creepy as it thinks it is. After a particularly disillusioning incident at a nursing home, Caroline takes a job as an in-home caregiver in order to more thoroughly bond with her charge. (Hey, you’re never going to make much headway on those unresolved paternal issues as long as you maintain a professional detachment.) She packs up her vintage 1970s VW Beetle and heads out into the bayou to the Devereaux estate, a tired old plantation house nestled amid the spreading cypress and hanging spanish moss.
Old Ben Devereaux (John Hurt in an almost, but not quite, wordless performance) has been left bedridden by a recent stroke, or so we’re told by his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands). The Devereaux’s lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard) assures Caroline that Violet’s cold shoulder is nothing personal – she’s just having a hard time dealing with her husband’s condition. Of course, it only takes a few days for Caroline to get the impression that Violet is “dealing with her husband’s condition” by acting pretty damn suspiciously. There’s Ben’s non-prescription “remedy,” prepared by Violet herself with loving care and more than a little secrecy. There’s the fact that there’s not a single mirror to be found in the house. There’s Ben’s late night attempt to escape his second floor room through the window, a mighty hefty bit of nocturnal wandering from the guy who’s supposed to be unable to walk. And then there’s that mysteriously locked attic room, the one with the skulls and the chicken parts in mason jars and the black and red candles and all the other voo doo sorta stuff.
Of course, this is just a short drive outside New Orleans, so the presence of that sort of stuff is a good deal less surprising that it would be in, say, Vermont. Hell, it’s practically expected. But Caroline’s from Hoboken, so she’s a little freaked. Not so her friend who’s a native of the Big Easy. She’s quick to clarify things for Caroline: what she found in the attic is a “hoo doo room.” Voo Doo, we’re told, is a religion, while “hoo doo” is all about the hexes and curses and magic spells and such. (Is this a real distinction or ate the folks at Universal just being a little paranoid and trying to avoid offending any real voo doo practitioners who might feel inclined towards boycotts and law suits? Who knows?) At least the hoo doo angle explains the absence of mirrors and the lines of brick dust in the house’s doorways. Or does it?
When Caroline finally confronts Violet about the hoo doo in the attic, she gets the “you’re not from The South, you wouldn’t understand” routine. For about 27 seconds. Then Violet recounts the history of the house, which was marked with the lynching of a pair of household servants who, it turns out, were also hoo doo mystics. And, it seems, amateur recording artists – Caroline finds several old LPs of their ceremonies. This seems like it’s going to be a major plot point, but like a number of the specifics in the movie’s build-up it never comes to any distinct resolution. In that respect, Skeleton Key reminds me of several of Kruger’s other screenplays, particularly The Ring. Kruger also penned The Ring Two and Reindeer Games, which I haven’t seen, and Imposter, a muddled and overwrought sci-fi adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story with a twist ending. His track record makes me worry a bit about Brothers Grimm.
Skeleton Key isn’t helped by Iain Softly’s pointlessly stylish direction. Softly directed Hackers, a strange cross between guilty pleasure and some sort of amusingly misinformed cultural artifact (also handily useful in games of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Part of the reason something like The Sixth Sense works is the deliberate control with which it’s structured on every level; Softly’s flailing camera and stylized ultra-close-ups are constant reminders that we’re watching a movie, a layer of artifice that distances us from the events of the movie by making us overtly aware of the form itself. It doesn’t help that the heavy-handed touch is present almost from the outset, before the film has established its world or earned any liberties.
Oh yeah. The movie thinks it has a twist. I saw it coming. I don’t think it’s a twist. Barely a bend, really. Actually, I think I may have seen more or less the same thing on a Twilight Zone or Night Gallery episode or something like that.