Opening Doors with The Skeleton Key 7/8

In preparation for this weekend’s Saturday Night Freak Show feature, The Skeleton Key, I thought it’d be fun to make an authentic Louisiana gumbo. Gumbo being a spicy, Southern-style soup consisting of a thick broth, chicken, hot sausage, rice & vegetables all thrown together in a pot and boiled for a couple of hours. Actually, according to a featurette on The Skeleton Key DVD, it can take up to 10 hours to prepare the chicken stock ingredient itself. Needless to say, I went with the less time intensive method by using Zatarain’s Gumbo Mix with Rice and adding my own chicken and andouille sausage. The result was really good, as is most of the Zatarain’s line.

The Skeleton Key comes from the pen of screenwriter Ehren Krueger, who gained some attention as the writer of The Ring remake. Here, he crafts an original horror story good enough to attract some A-list talent to the cast.

Kate Hudson plays Caroline, a hospice worker in New Orleans who takes a job at an ancient plantation house out in the rural swamps of Terrebonne Parish. She’s hired by the estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), at the behest of Violet Deveraux (Gena Rowlands) to care for her bedridden husband, Ben (John Hurt), who has suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak.

The first strange thing the new nursemaid notices is the lack of mirrors. Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key which opens any door in the house, and it isn’t long before Caroline is poking around in long-sealed attic rooms where she finds evidence of voodoo. When asked, Violet claims that the room was sealed up by the house’s past occupants, who were practitioners of hoodoo, the real voodoo. She explains that on a terrible night back before the Civil War, two slaves, Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, were lynched in the garden after involving the master’s children in their pagan rituals. The ghosts of the executed sorcerers are claimed to haunt the grounds still, appearing in mirrors. Caroline begins to suspect if the supernatural had something to do with Ben’s stroke, and begins researching hoodoo for a way to cure him.

That’s about all that can be said for the plot of The Skeleton Key without ruining it's surprises, for one of the best things about it’s initial release was how little of the plot was divulged in the trailers (especially in this day and age where even the largest plot revelations can be guessed in the coming attractions preview). Unfortunately, the downside to this was that the trailer did not manage to scare up an audience and the film went virtually ignored last year.

Which is a shame, because here is a horror film that is not a remake or a sequel, intelligent in its execution, shrouded in great Southern-gothic atmosphere and built around character and performance. Kate Hudson holds her own against screen legend Rowlands, who plays the Violet as pleasant with an edge of concealed malevolence. John Hurt has the most challenging role, communicating mostly with his eyes as the silent Ben. The film keeps us on our toes – is it ghosts? Is it hoodoo? How much does Violet know that she’s not telling? In a time where every horror film reminds us of one we’ve seen before, it’s a pleasure to go along with the modest mysteries and thrills of The Skeleton Key.

Director Ian Softley previously helmed Backbeat, about the pre-fame Beatles; Hackers, with a young Angelina Jolie and pre-Sopranos Lorraine Bracco; and the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from Space drama, K-Pax.

Gena Rowlands gained international stardom with her powerhouse performance in 1974 drama A Woman Under the Influence, opposite Peter Falk. She married the director, John Cassavettes, and they made 10 movies together before his death in 1989. As one of the pioneering artists behind independent cinema, Rowlands may be most familiar to modern audiences for her part in the adult romance, The Notebook, or the Angelina Jolie serial-killer thriller, Taking Lives. In 1991, she had a memorable part as the Hollywood agent that cabbie Winona Ryder ferries about town in Jim Jarmusch’s anthology, Night on Earth.

John Hurt needs no introduction to fans of cinemafantastique, being one of the most visible working actors in film. After having the most memorable dinner table scene of all time in Alien, he starred in The Elephant Man, lent his voice to Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, appeared in heavy makeup as the wizened Storyteller in the short lived Jim Henson Co. television series, starred as Hellboy’s earthly father and led totalitarian London in V for Vendetta.