The Skeleton Key
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Iain Softley
scr Ehren Kruger
with Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Joy Bryant, Maxine Barnett, Fahnlohnee Harris, Jeryl Prescott Sales, Ronald McCall, Tonya Staten, Marion Zinser, Isaach de Bankole
release UK 29.Jul.05, US 12.Aug.05
05/US Universal 1h44

Crossing the line: Hudson and Rowlands

hudson sarsgaard rowlands

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The Skeleton Key Director Softley and writer Kruger plunge neck deep into the bayou of Southern gothic thrillers, referencing everything from Baby Jane to, of course, Night of the Hunter, as they create a preposterously enjoyable suspense flick.

Caroline (Hudson) is a hospice worker who takes a job at a creepy plantation house in the swamps outside New Orleans, caring for stroke victim Ben (Hurt) and living with him and his loving but obsessive wife Violet (Rowlands). Her two contacts in the outside world are her cynical best friend (Bryant) and Violet's flirtatious lawyer (Sarsgaard). Soon she discovers that her master key opens a secret hoodoo room in the attic, unleashing all kinds of sinister secrets. Not that she believes in that sort of thing. Yet.

Softley's trademark lushness perfectly fits this genre, and he clearly relishes the trailing tree branches, murky ponds, overgrown gardens, peeling paintwork and sudden thunderstorms, augmented by all kinds of creeks and crackles on the soundtrack to keep us completely unsettled. Add jarringly stylised flashbacks and glimpses of superstitious magic. Meanwhile, Kruger's script emphasises the creepiness, recognising that these films work mainly because they're so silly that we never believe a bit of it, but still get freaked out.

Hudson is just right as the young woman caught in the middle of it all, lurching from disbelief to agnosticism to utter fear. We discover everything along with her--not ahead of her for a change--which makes her character thoroughly sympathetic, and adds a resonant chill to the gonzo climactic mayhem. Meanwhile, Sarsgaard is note-perfect as always, Hurt effectively conveys Ben's inner terror without the benefit of dialog, and the ever-wonderful Rowlands indulges in a proper performance as the batty-but-knowing Violet.

There's absolutely no subtext to this film--it's simply a bit of entertaining and empty-headed suspense that pays homage to a fine tradition of much better Southern thrillers (see Sam Raimi's The Gift for a more successful attempt). But as it gets increasingly manic towards the over-the-top finale, it becomes both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. You can't help but love it.

cert 15 themes, violence, suspense, language 17.Jun.05

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2005 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall