Never underestimate the power of belief.
Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a young woman with a big heart. When she learns that the hospice center she’s working in is managed as a place where the dying are sent to die, she seeks in-home employment for someone that needs her help and where she can feel fulfilled doing it. Caroline finds that opportunity with Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), a man who reportedly suffered a stroke two months earlier and has become more than a handful for his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands). Caroline discovers evidence of local magic and witchcraft while living in the couples’ thirty-room mansion overgrown in the swamps of Louisiana, and while she herself doesn’t believe in it, she comes to understand its power over those who do and that it may hold a secret about Ben’s sudden affliction.
Welcome to Southern Louisiana, home to witches, vampires, voodoo, zombies, and candymen. Even Tiger Woods is known to have been conjured up there (by way of a truck commercial) because, in the sinking city of New Orleans, the witch doctors of America seem right at home there. Mix in a clueless but big-hearted young lady from New Jersey and you have the perfect recipe for a horror flick, right? Okay, the trailers are a bit misleading; this isn’t a horror film, but its black heart is in the right place with the terror it invokes. In other words, you’ll get out of it exactly what you put in, and those who do will find a treat where the bread crumbs end.
The devil is in the details and stepping through the plot of this story is no exception, so I’ll not give away its secrets here. But all of it hinges on the talents of Kate Hudson because, in the end, she’s the one that has to sell it. The news is good; Ms. Hudson brings the right amount of heart, fear, understanding, spunk, and terror to the lead role that a good thriller needs. Coupled with onscreen presence of Peter Sarsgaard as a young Southern lawyer attending the Devereaux estate, and there are more than enough twists and turns generated by this ensemble mix of supporting players that Hudson has plenty to react to.
The setting, the house, and the stories surrounding it invoke the mood the film feeds on, and the cinematography and sound use it well. The conclusion is smart and not a studio-directed decision, because all the evidence of it is onscreen from the first scene. Better yet, while the film ends satisfactorily, it also seeds the set up an equally interesting sequel if all the players agreed to return. The Skeleton Key may not be a slasher film with buckets of fake blood, but fans of Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring already understand what a creepy atmosphere, a good ghost story, and a great heroine can bring to a modern thriller.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)