Monday, October 03, 2005

Movie Review - The Skeleton Key

(image curtesy of Universal Studios)

One could say that East Asian horror genre has now gain sufficient prominence that not only is Hollywood remaking more than it’s share of films of this nature but new horror films coming out of Tinsletown now seem to have embraced the same sensibilities. Films like “The Sixth Sense”, “The Others” and “Stirs of Echoes” all share more than a few points of reference with their East Asian brethren than the blood and gore fest that have long been associated with Hollywood horror movies. In the latest addition to the list of “thinking” horror/thriller movies, “Skeleton Key” continues the Hollywood experiment of the assimilation of East Asian horror structures into popular film making.

In “Skeleton Key”, Kate Hudson plays the role of Caroline Ellis, a New Jersey transplant to New Orleans, who worked in a hospice facility in order to get enough credit for her towards her nursing degree. We also find out later that she takes on this responsibility as penance for her guilt of letting her own father die alone a year prior. Sicken by the way the facilities threats their patients, Caroline decided to answer a classified ad looking for a live-in caregiver where she hopes that she would be able to help in her own terms. Little does she know that her decision to take the job offer would set off a chain of events that would quickly run out of her control.

As part of her new assignment, Caroline was expected to take care of Ben Devereaux, played by John Hurt, in a huge decrepit plantation mansion surrounded by the dark and foreboding Louisiana swamps. Ben had suffered a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed and was under the care of his wife Violet Devereaux, played by Gena Rowlands, before circumstances forced her to seek outside help to care for her husband. From the very first moment they met, Violet resented Caroline’s presence and their antagonistic relationship made for most of the conflict throughout this movie. Being that she was far out of the way in this gothic manor, Caroline’s single link to the outside world was the Devereaux’s lawyer Luke, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who would later be her confidant as things became increasingly strange around the house.

From the very beginning, things seemed to be a little off for Caroline in the Devereaux’s residence. The exact cause of Ben’s stroke was left very vague as Violet explained to her except for the fact that it happened while Ben was in the attic where a locked room that she forbade Caroline to enter. The whole house was stripped of all reflective surfaces and mirrors for no apparent reason. Caroline was given the titular skeleton key that could unlock all doors in the house except, apparently, the door in the attic when Ben had his stroke. The mixture of curiosity and possibly boredom led Caroline to explore the attic and discover that her key does open the door in the attic where she found a secret room filled with items associated with the Hoodoo belief practiced by the former black house servants of the previous occupants.

Although initially the skeptic, Caroline began to find evidence that Violet knew more about “Hoodoo”, a mixture of voodoo, Christianity and Native American practices, than she lets on. Along the way she begins to question the story of how Ben had his stroke and became convinced that a darker hand was manipulating the events that happened in the house. The character arc for Caroline from being a skeptic to becoming a believer in Hoodoo anchors the remaining story as it hurtles along to an exciting climax that would definitely blindside most audience who could be looking for something more conventional. The surprising twist at the end of the movie more than made up for the slower moments in the first half and would leave the audience with a memorable dénouement to leave the cinema with.

At it’s core, “Skeleton Key” is more of a thriller than it is a horror movie. The focus is more on how Caroline piece together the puzzle of what actually happened in the house rather than the ghosts that may or may not be haunting the attic. Nevertheless there were more than a few atmospheric scenes that would surely slowly creep under the audience’s skin to provide the chills running down the spine of those watching this movie in the darken theater. There were points in the movie that could be singled out as really pushing the limits of believability as well as predictability but thankfully they were far in between. The original twist at the end sells the whole movie and the discerning audience would find themselves retracing Caroline’s investigations to see if there were portends and foreshadowing of the unraveling of the mysteries in the climax.

Casting-wise, it was refreshing to see a different side of the effervescent Kate Hudson acting against type in this movie. This role was something that she has not had a chance to do much before and it was handled capably. Gena Rowlands and John Hurt deliver solid but unremarkable performances. Hurt, especially, was reduce to acting with mostly just his eyes and brows making panicky expressions as his character’s stroke had rendered him speechless. For most of the movie, Peter Sarsgaard’s character doesn’t have a lot of things to do but rest assure that would change in the last 15 minutes of the show.

If there was anything criminal about this movie then it would be the dismal attempt to really engage the wonderful background of Louisiana swamp and New Orleans more into the movie. Instead of being a whole other character that would contribute greatly to the atmosphere of the movie, the wonderful landscape was wasted as just mere colorful backdrops to the action on screen. Had the director made better use of the already dark and creepy environment, the movie would be able to deliver more spine tingling chills than what it meagerly doled out in a watered down homage to the East Asian horror genre.

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