The Skeleton Key (2005) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, language and some partial nudity
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Joy Bryant
Director: Iain Softley
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter that adapted The Ring and The Ring Two to Hollywood-loving audiences, now gives us more spooky chills in The Skeleton Key, with a similarly slow descent into some disturbing concepts, and some more nifty twists tossed in as the film nears its climax. Also similar to those previous efforts, the mechanics of the gimmicky story rule above all else, as the entire plot hinges on whether or not we find the concepts interesting enough to merit the slow and intentionally confusing build-up. My rule of thumb for reviewing these sorts of movies is to ask a basic question: if you were privy to knowing exactly what is going on from the outset, instead of the revelation coming at the end, would the movie still work well enough as a piece of entertainment to justify watching? Unfortunately, as much as I found the ending intriguing, it doesn't really merit sitting through the slow ninety minutes that come before it. It's another case of a story that should have been a 30 minute episode of "Tales from the Darkside", which would have saved us an hour of our lives and the cost of admission.
Sick of her hospice job where she watched old people die without any loved ones to care for them, twenty-five year old Caroline Ellis (Hudson, Le Divorce) accepts a position as a caregiver in an old mansion just outside of New Orleans. The man she is to look after is Ben Devereaux (Hurt, Hellboy) a wheelchair ridden and mostly zoned-out man that is reported to have only six months left to live. Ben's wife, Violet (Rowlands, The Notebook) , isn't all that eager for Caroline's assistance, but all of the other women have left the job rather quickly, and as Ben descends into his illness, she realizes getting some help is crucial. One of the first items Caroline is given is a skeleton key to open all the doors of the house, except that Caroline soon finds a door that the key doesn't open -- a mysterious door in the attic that Violet claims has never been opened in her 40+ years of residence there. Curiosity gets the better of Caroline, who has been seeing strange images, mysterious behavior from the couple, and all the mirrors suspiciously removed from the house. Caroline is convinced that the solution to all of these mysteries lies behind what is beyond the door in the attic.
The Skeleton Key isn't horrible, and in fact, it does have its moments of interest, but it still falls short of the mark due to seeming all too familiar in its approach to slow horror filmmaking. Director Softley (K-PAX, Hackers) does imbue his film with a dark, haunting look, but from the moment you first see the characters, it is easy to spot who the villains and victims will be. The only questions left will be how and why, and while the ultimate payoff does make for a decent final few moments, there is still one very big flaw in the story to have to overlook for this all to work -- only a truly stupid and tenaciously curious person would ever do the unbelievably dumb things that Caroline does in the pursuit of solutions to the house's strange behavior. Almost every scene starts with the premise that she must act in ways no one would ever dare act, while the silliness factor gets elevated to an inordinately high amount for a thriller with only modest scope.
In spite of all of the nonsense, The Skeleton Key does maintain a certain interest level that will at least keep you from falling asleep, and if only the characters and situations didn't seem cooked up out of someone's overambitious imagination, the makings were were to be a nicely effective modern day thriller. Sadly, the thrills are minimal, the shocks quite standard, and all that's left is an attempt to turn the tables on characters we've given up caring about long before the halfway point. Viewers that like artificial thrillers designed to throw you for a loop will like this more than others, but anyone looking for a real story with real characters may find The Skeleton Key to be a barebones experience.
©2005 Vince Leo