The Barenaked Archives: The Skeleton Key

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?

I don’t have one.

I hate horror movies. Despise, detest, loathe, abhor, pick your term. Anybody who knows me relatively well knows that is the one genre of film I flat-out refuse to watch (okay, that and any movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book).

I can count on two hands the number of horror films and/or slasher flicks I’ve seen, on one hand the ones I didn’t hate, and on no hands how many I watched voluntarily.

However, even I’m willing to overcome my intense dislike for the genre when a) the movie is free and b) I will be compensated monetarily for viewing it. Even if it may mean a sleepless night or five.

Hence, the reason I saw The Skeleton Key this week.

Bayous Are Bad

skeleton_key_webSetting is, without a doubt, one of the most important things when making a supernatural suspense movie. It’s usually best to set it in an old, creepy house that looks like it has a history. It’s even better if said old, creepy house is in the swamps of Louisiana, the only state in the Union with a rich and famous legacy of ghosts, voodoo, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night.

The Skeleton Key fully exploits the inherent creepiness of its bayou locale and the locale’s history, resulting in a relatively suspenseful mystery that at times overcomes its mediocre, been-there-done-that plot.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a New Orleans hospice worker who’s just taken on a live-in job in a decrepit old mansion out in the swamps, caring for the elderly Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) under the watchful eye of his wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands). At first Caroline is content to do her job, but strange goings-on at the mansion have her questioning what’s really going on, and lead her to investigate voodoo practices in hopes of saving Ben.

This story couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Louisiana, and it makes the most of its location. The natural history of New Orleans and its surrounding area makes it easy to bring in voodoo practices, which still have a hold on people today. Just the atmosphere down there makes it a little easier to believe that magic holds sway, even in the “real” world.

The swamps, of course, are innately eerie, between the isolation, the ghostly moss-covered trees, and animals just waiting to take a bite out of you. It makes the boonies of Oklahoma seem positively urban. There’s a sense that the swamps have only one way in and one way out, and if somebody doesn’t want you to get out, you’re not going to.

The Devereaux mansion itself makes for a great “haunted house” setting. Hidden by a long road of mossy trees, it’s fallen into neglect, with peeling paint and overgrown bushes, except for the garden out back. The inside seems dark even in the daytime, and for every door that Caroline’s skeleton key unlocks, you get the feeling there could be some secret behind it that you’re better off not knowing.

With those major setting elements combined, you have the perfect atmosphere for a movie like this, and it’s helped along by Kate Hudson and Gena Rowlands, both of whom turn in some solid performances. John Hurt is also good, considering that his performance must be primarily through his faces and gestures, since Ben can’t speak. Peter Sarsgaard also crops up as the Devereaux’s estate lawyer, Luke, and he is always worth watching.

The plot is really neither here nor there, as it’s just another “pretty white girl in trouble” mystery. Some of the twists are interesting (though not necessarily good).

The end could’ve stood for a little cutting, especially as movies like this are best left without a ton of explanation. There’s a fine line between telling just enough to let the audiences know what’s going on and insulting their intelligence.

Truth be told, The Skeleton Key is about on par for an August release: not bad but nothing to write home about. If you’re in the mood for a creepy and unsettling mystery, check it out at a matinee.

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