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Skeleton Key, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 12 August 2005
“The Skeleton Key” looks great and has a surprisingly good cast for a PG-13 horror movie, but it’s piffle just the same. And I’m afraid we’re in for a lot more of this piffle. I’m starting to realize that scripts written by Ehren Kruger must read a whole hell of a lot better than they play. Those released so far have been pretty bad, and haven’t even been especially profitable, and yet he’s one of the busiest screenwriters in Hollywood.

“Arlington Road” was the script that first gained him notice, but it’s contrived and predictable in an almost offensive manner. “Reindeer Games” and “Impostor” were no better—but then Kruger got the assignment of his life. He wrote the script for the American version of “The Ring” and that, of course, was a major hit and led to his writing the sequel. He suddenly became the go-to guy for everything in sight; even smart directors like Terry Gilliam seem to have been won over by Kruger’s scripts—he wrote Gilliam’s “Brothers Grimm,” due out any minute. Kerry Conran is directing “John Carter of Mars” from Kruger’s script; his screenplay for “The Talisman” is getting that long-delayed project off the ground.

And yet on the evidence of his movies to date, Kruger is labored, unimaginative and trivial, given to treating hoary clichés a though they were his fresh, personal creations. “The Skeleton Key” is merely the latest example, but it’s just as underdeveloped and predictable as his movies to date. (“The Ring” is an exception because it wasn’t his story.) The movie is intended for the under-30 women who’ve become the biggest section of the audience for these PG-13 movies. That’s why this movie treats old age as a horror greater than death. Dying? Yeah, that happens, but omigod don’t let me get all gray and flabby and wrinkly. Eeeyuck.

It begins in one of America’s most photogenic cities, New Orleans, but director Iain Softley (“K-PAX”) makes only postcard use of locations. Kate Hudson is private duty nurse Caroline; her specialty is looking after dying old men. Kruger struggles to give her a reason for this beyond simple compassion. It’s probably just this kind of heavy underlining, of filling his scripts with “rooting interest” and overdone backstories that makes his screenplays so attractive to studio execs. He’s also heavy on the three-act structure to the point that his movies feel like they already have commercial breaks every twenty minutes.

Caroline wasn’t at her father’s side when he died, you see, so now she spends her time at the sides of other elderly men who are dying. Hey wow, you can, like, identify with her and stuff. This is crappy thinking, a substitute for characterization. “The Skeleton Key” barely has any characterization at all. We know Caroline is distressed because she wasn’t there for her father when he needed her, but we know damned little else about her, despite Kate Hudson’s committed performance.
She decides to care for someone in their home, not at a hospice or hospital, and visits an antebellum mansion way out in bayou country. An aerial shot shows that the house is incredibly isolated. The house is owned by Violet Deveraux (Gena Rowlands), who’s caring for her paralyzed husband Ben (John Hurt). Their attorney Luke (Peter Sarsgaard) tells Caroline that Ben suffered a stroke, and is not long for this world. Other nurses have come and gone; he begs Caroline to stay on despite Violet’s abrupt and somewhat cold nature.

No sooner has Caroline settled into the mansion than Violet gives her a skeleton key which she swears will open any lock in the house, and the house has many rooms. Sent to the attic—where Ben had his stroke—Caroline becomes intensely curious about noises she hears behind a locked door that the skeleton key won’t open.

And here’s another example of Kruger’s crude plotting: Caroline immediately becomes overwhelming determined to solve the mystery of the mansion. We know and see nothing about her that would suggest that turning Nancy Drew makes sense for her character; it’s just required by the plot, and so she begins snooping.

From her New Orleans friend Jill (Joy Bryant), who’s black—and who has no more characterization than a lamp—she learns that the house, and Violet, may be involved in hoodoo. (Please don’t let that trigger the “man with the power” recitation.) This, Jill says, is not the same as voodoo, which is a religion with its roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Hoodoo is American folk magic of the darkest shade, deriving from European, African and American Indian traditions. Okay, now we’ve had the dictionary definition. It makes no difference to the story whether the magic here is hoodoo, voodoo or osky wow wow. The rituals we see and which provide the fantastic element could have any background at all.

One dark and stormy night, Caroline is shocked to find Ben—who cannot walk—on the roof outside his window, crawling his way through fallen leaves and running water. Caroline becomes convinced that Violet is responsible for her husband’s condition, and after a visit to the most polite, incurious expert on ritual magic in movie history, she’s sure that Violet is trying to steal Ben’s youth. Which he doesn’t have any more anyway. But Caroline doesn’t notice this.

It all ties back to the history of the house. In the early 20th century, the owners of the house employed a black butler and is wife. The butler was a powerful hoodoo conjure man, but he and his wife were friendly to the family’s two children. After a raucous party, the kids are missing; the drunken revelers find them in the attic with the butler and his wife. The kids seem okay, but the revelers still lynch the butler and his wife, then set their bodies afire. The two children never married; it was from them that the Deveraux bought the house more than 40 years earlier. Caroline finds hoodoo charms and pickled body parts in the attic, along with records of the conjure man’s conjures.

It all leads to a thunderous climax.

I hope Gena Rowlands was paid well; she’s terrific in the role, but it’s a thankless part in a movie that will soon be forgotten. And why hire an actor of John Hurt’s style and skill if all he’s going to do is moan with his mouth open? Peter Sarsgaard, with his skinny eyes and designed face, is well-cast as a charming Southern gent who may have skeletons in his own attic.

There’s nothing original and very little imaginative about Kruger’s underpopulated script. The story absolutely, positively requires Caroline to do certain things at certain times, starting with her unmotivated, early, passionate curiosity. She has to go to the right places, perform the right actions and believe the right thoughts or none of the schemers’ plans will come to fruition. This mechanical, forced structure is so obvious and poor it’s astonishing that anyone could have thought this story worth filming.

But they did. And it’s made reasonably well, too, though there’s no sense of the humid, almost cloying atmosphere of southern Louisiana. It’s a modern-day horror movie; the audiences for these tepid contemporary chillers—almost all of which, like this one, are rated PG-13—tend to be teenage girls, not the teenage boys who flocked to horror movies ever since Universal opened the door back in 1931. It’s depressing to consider that today Universal Horror means this and “Van Helsing.”

Director Softley tries to crank up the tension, but has to resort to ineffective, unconvincing devices as a sinister oyster shucker (who has nothing to do with the story). And yet he doesn’t use the mansion’s creaky old elevator to any atmospheric ends. He peeks through keyholes and shows us the inner workings of locks as they’re opened—and still this has nothing to do with the story. He uses the usual overstressed editing techniques that pass for action these days, but this script did need all the help he could give it—which isn’t much.

“The Skeleton Key” doesn’t even have opening credits. I suppose this is to make the movie seem like, you know, important, but all it really means is that Kruger bypassed one of the most useful devices for setting mood, tone and style: the credit sequence. All the credits are at the end, but I doubt that very many people will bother to sit through them—and many won’t even get that far. Boo hiss.

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