THE SKELETON KEY
The Skeleton Key feels like a clichéd outsiders view of New Orleans and its culture all swamps, moss-laden antebellum mansions, blues clubs, shops where fetishes are sold and voodoo beliefs are spoken of in hushed tones, where Black folk live in poverty and the ghosts of slavery and Southern aristocracy are still felt. It feels like Iain Softley has borrowed most of his images of the region from another much superior New Orleans voodoo film Angel Heart (1987). [For a film that offers a far more unclichéd and authentic depiction of the voodoo and culture of the region, one should see the excellent Eves Bayou (1997).]
The rest is cliché horror movie theatrics and it is here that Iain Softleys hand is pedestrian. The film is far too reliant on red herring jumps storms, people unexpectedly stepping out into frame, Help Me messages that are there one minute and gone the next and contrived dramatics people falling from rooftops, Kate Hudsons race to get out of the attic but dropping the record as Gena Rowlands comes up the stairs. Softley occasionally gets some subtle effect with in particular the scene where Kate Hudson sprinkles the red dirt on her door stoop and tries to get Gena Rowlands to cross it. But by the time of the climax with predictable twists of allegiance, more storms, crashing mirrors and a crazed Gena Rowlands looking like she had stepped out of What Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the film feels like Iain Softley has gone into histrionic overdrive with his piratic mimicry of horror film affect.
The plot is surprisingly reminiscent of the Val Lewton classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943). In both cases, the central character is a nurse who travels to a large old estate in remote location that is rich in African culture to tend a bedridden and brain-damaged spouse; in both films, the heroine comes to believe that the spouses condition is caused by voodoo. Both films hover between a rational and a magical explanation (The Skeleton Key less so than I Walked with a Zombie) with the nurse character eventually coming to believe that voodoo rituals hold the solution to their patients condition and taking them on a journey to save their life. There are many differences too The Skeleton Key throws in a horde of clichés from the House of Secrets book and substitutes a body of clichéd slams, bangs and storms for the more subtle ambiguities of the superior I Walked. The Skeleton Key also throws in a twist ending that has been borrowed from The Wicker Man (1973), along with a few shakes of the voodoo/soul predation plot from Angel Heart. The twist holds no surprises to anyone who has watched a few horror movies and seems improbably contrived when one sits down to think about it.
The one good thing about The Skeleton Key is the presence of Kate Hudson. Her part is an undemanding role that could have been filled by any actress on the Hollywood block but it is to Hudsons credit that she brings a great deal of conviction to the centre of the film.