My 100 Favourite Films In Review, Number 92 – The Skeleton Key

92 – The Skeleton Key:

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Ah my first horror film. Well this wasn’t my first horror film – that title belongs to the remake of The Haunting – but it’s the first horror on the list. As with comedy, animation, fantasy and other genres, horror is really looked down on. John Carpenter once said that most critics seem to view horror as only a step above pornography. There is some merit to that if one checks out the endless sequels to Halloween and Friday the 13th – or more gratuitous pieces like Hostel or Cabin Fever. But a good horror film is one that can rely on creating a suitably creepy atmosphere. While horrors do get a bit more respect these days, films such as Silence of the Lambs and Black Swan seem to have to go incognito under the ‘psychological thriller’ umbrella to appease the highbrow tastes. But as I’ve loved horrors since I entered double digits, you will see plenty of them on this list. So let’s get down to scaring ourselves with The Skeleton Key.

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I’m not going to give a rundown on the history of this film or anything, but rather on that of the movie’s star. The protagonist Caroline Ellis is played by Kate Hudson. If there’s one actress who best epitomises Hollywood in the early 2000s, it’s her. After getting critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Almost Famous, Kate Hudson was suddenly everywhere. If there was a magazine of any note, she was on the cover. If there were any fashion trends, she was all over them. If there was a romantic comedy around, chances are she was the lead. Kate Hudson was one of the hardest working women in early 2000s Hollywood. Although she came from a family of movie people, she insisted on earning parts on her own merits. She sometimes strayed into more dramatic roles – Raising Helen – or else a musical or two – Nine. But she was forever known as the romantic comedy go-to girl. This is the only time she ever tried a horror film. And I absolutely love her performance in it. Kate Hudson is brilliant in this film. I’m 100% serious – and I would hold this over any of her other roles, except Almost Famous and maybe Raising Helen.

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The film opens with a very beautiful and yet sombre sequence. Caroline is a hospice worker and she’s reading to a man on his deathbed. When she notices he’s gone, the staff rather coldly go about disposing of the body. After being informed that the man’s family want nothing to do with him, Caroline is told to throw a box of his personal belongings in the dumpster. Then we get a very harrowing shot of Caroline looking in the dumpster, at all the boxes of other people’s personal effects.

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This entire opening sequence is a fantastic example of telling us everything we need to know about our protagonist with minimal dialogue. We already know that Caroline is a very caring individual. Even though she’s in the business of caring for people, it’s clear that she feels something for every person she looks after. And it’s clear that she’s affected by the death of this man the audience never knew. Later in the club with her friend Jill, Caroline says she’s quit her job and applied for another position to care for somebody in their home. And then we get a few shots of them dancing, because it would be a crime to set a movie in Louisiana and not make the most of a good jazz soundtrack. The next day as Caroline drives to the interview, we see she’s kept one of the dead man’s belongings – which is a very tender tribute to him.

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Caroline moves out of the bustling city and further into the wilderness of the swamps. The house is one that undoubtedly was once a grand plantation home. But nowadays it’s a little overgrown and rundown. Caroline meets Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard), the family’s attorney. He introduces her to the couple: Violet (Gena Rowlands) and Ben (John Hurt). A month ago Ben had a stroke in the attic and doctors have ruled that he doesn’t have long to live. Violet seems a bit against the idea of having someone living with them. Caroline overhears Violet complaining about her not being from New Orleans and that she won’t understand the house. According to Luke, the last girl quit and Violet has turned down five other applicants. Nonetheless Caroline is hired. But just to establish that she’s not in The Big Easy any more, we get a scene where she’s thoroughly creeped out by an odd family living in the back of a gas station.

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“I only have three minutes of screen time, but you’ll think of me when you sleep.”

Caroline moves into the house and gets unpacked, but she notices that there are no mirrors hanging anywhere. And when she attends to Ben, despite him being an invalid, he’s able to grab her hand. He simmers down when Violet gives him his remedies. They start their conversation about Caroline’s appearance, where Violet worries she’s covered with tattoos and piercings. She also remarks “you’re skinnier than I would have hoped. Prettier though”, which I assume means she wants her husband to have some decent eye candy for his final days. Talk turns to how long they’ve lived in the house – since the 1960s after they bought it from a brother and sister. Violet still keeps their picture on the mantle as a tribute. Caroline also finds another picture of the children with two black servants – labelled ‘Mama Cecile & Papa Justify’. Violet presents Caroline with the titular skeleton key – to open every door in the house. She also asks about Caroline’s parents; the mother left years ago and the father has recently died. And Caroline didn’t get to care for him.

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“Ah, a classic.”

Violet sombrely says “you think too much about the time you’ve got left. You don’t spend it living” and then goes off. The next day Caroline and Violet are in the garden. After a brief talk about religion, Violet sends her up into the attic to get some seeds. Following the rule about attics in old houses, this one is suitably creepy. It’s also got a door that rattles, but the skeleton key doesn’t open it. When Caroline questions Violet, the old woman claims they’ve never been able to open the door. Caroline also remembers that Ben was found in the attic when he had his stroke.

That night there’s a bit of rain, and a rather gratuitous scene of Caroline taking a shower. By God they paid for Kate Hudson’s figure and they’re going to show some of it off. This is interrupted by a banging sound from upstairs – and Ben has somehow gotten onto the roof! Caroline likewise finds a smashed plant pot and a message written on the bed sheet.

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At least the stroke didn’t affect his literacy.

The next morning, Caroline is still trying to figure out why Ben would want to try and get out. Luke Marshall stops by but when Caroline tries to show him the bed sheet, the message is gone. We do however find out a little more about Caroline’s father issues; she dropped out of college, he took issue with it and they never spoke again. He was gone before she knew he was ill. But she amusingly says the reason she dropped out of college was to help with some friend’s bands…

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Bands like these perhaps?

She tells Luke that she feels as if Ben may be asking her for help, but they can’t talk much more about it as Violet comes in. Luke still gives Caroline his card however. The next day, when Violet is working in the garden, Caroline sneaks into the attic. Using a hairpin to pick the locked door, she discovers that something has been put in the lock to prevent the skeleton key from opening it. She now opens the door and comes across the usual creepy attic riff-raff. She also finds some more photos from the house’s plantation days, as well as an old wedding ring. But more importantly, an old book and a vinyl record labelled ‘The Conjure of Sacrifice’. But then she hears Violet coming up the stairs.

After Violet leaves the attic, Caroline finds the various mirrors she put away. She goes into New Orleans to play the record in Jill’s apartment. Rather than any kind of music, it sounds more like some sort of prayer. Luckily Jill knows what the room is about. It’s Hoodoo – a special kind of religion brought to America from Haiti. But the difference is that Hoodoo is more like American folk magic. The key thing is that it can’t hurt you if you don’t believe.

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Jill herself doesn’t believe but her aunt does – and shops at a local place. Remember that. Next morning, Violet gets a fright when she sees that Caroline has hung all the mirrors back up again. Caroline tells Violet she’s seen the room and demands to know the truth. Violet’s story takes them back to the days of the Old South – when the house was owned by a crooked banker called Thorpe. He had two notable servants – Mama Cecile and Papa Justify. They were also Hoodoo practitioners, who healed the sick and punished the greedy.

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You might say they had friends on the other side…

Thorpe never knew about the servants’ extracurricular activities and just worked them to the bone. But one night there was a lavish party in the house, and the children went missing. They were found up in the attic with the servants – trying to learn Hoodoo. The guests flew into a blind rage and lynched Cecile and Justify while the children watched. Thorpe got away with the murder but the bank went under, he shot his wife and then killed himself. Rumours said it was Justify and Cecile’s revenge.

Violet says that the children never told them why the room was locked, or why the mirrors were hidden away. But according to some books she read, it’s said the ghosts can be seen in the mirrors. She vows that whatever they may have done to Ben, she won’t let them do it to her. Caroline decides to go into the Hoodoo shop in New Orleans and get some tips. Jill understandably is alarmed by this, and reminds Caroline that she’s a hospice worker – not a member of the Scooby Gang. She also insinuates that Ben isn’t Caroline’s dad and that it’s dangerous to get too attached to a patient. Although Caroline insists that she’s only playing on Ben’s belief, well, she’s starting to sound as if she might believe.

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That night she prepares a spell that is supposed to act as a cure. She theorises that if Ben believes in a cure, it will work. And what do you know, Ben is able to move his arms and try and articulate a sentence. He asks Caroline to help him and get him out of the house. Violet is now aware that something is going on, and Ben signals that it’s her he’s afraid of. As Caroline leaves the room, she can hear Violet locking the door. Later that night, Caroline has a creepy nightmare that ends with her looking like this.

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She checks the reflection in the handheld mirror and she thinks she sees someone leaving the room. The next morning she starts packing her stuff, ready to leave. But she catches sight of Ben, and looks at the picture of her father. This convinces her to stay. She then goes to Luke Marshall to show him pictures of the Hoodoo stuff she found in the attic. She also insists he take her to see the girl that quit. The girl – Hailey – gives Caroline some more information about the house. The brother and sister who sold it to Violet and Ben – Martin and Grace Thorpe – died of strokes almost immediately after the sale. Hailey believes that it wasn’t ghosts that pull a spell on Ben – but Violet herself. And despite Caroline insisting she doesn’t believe, Hailey suggests she leave as quickly as possible. On the way home, Caroline spots the creepy gas station from earlier.

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“I’m plot relevant! Aren’t you glad you get to see me again?”

The blind old woman is inside, and she reacts when Caroline mentions the name Justify. Likewise, when she speaks about the Conjure of Sacrifice, the woman gets a little scared. According to her, the Conjure of Sacrifice keeps the caster from dying. The process usually involves taking the years from someone else. Caroline then tells Luke she will get proof that Violet is out to hurt Ben. But when she gets back to the house, she discovers that the Conjure of Sacrifice is missing from her suitcase. Caroline decides to put some Hoodoo to the test. Following the woman in the shop’s instructions, Caroline puts a trail of brick dust over the threshold of her bedroom. If Violet means her harm, she won’t be able to enter the room. Sure enough when she asks Violet to come into the room, the old woman is reluctant to. But she asks Caroline to join her for supper later. Caroline agrees but tells Ben they’re leaving tonight. She also spends some time injecting Violet’s sugar cubes with sedatives.

It’s too bad that the dinner table scene doesn’t go on longer, because the performances from Hudson and Rowlands are quite intense. But the power goes out and Violet leaves to get candles, Caroline pouring the rest of the sedative into her iced tea. Caroline now demands to know what Violet has done to her husband, but the sedative kicks in before we can get that information. Caroline steals the page in her hand – for a protection spell – and quickly runs upstairs. She finds the record and the bed sheet with ‘Help Me’ written on it in Violet’s room. She also finds a lock of her own hair, indicating that Violet has been casting spells against her. She tries to get Ben to safety but the house gates are somehow chained shut. I guess there was something to Violet chanting “keep him in this house” over and over. Ramming the gates doesn’t work, and Caroline loses control of her car. Violet’s spell must be preventing them from leaving.

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As always, there are other possibilities…

Caroline hides Ben in the shed but now has to deal with Violet coming after her with a shotgun. And you have no idea how Gena Rowlands with a shotgun is both ridiculously awesome and quite terrifying. Caroline thinks on her feet and escapes in a boat through the swamp. It’s implied that she hitchhikes to Luke’s house, where she tells him about Violet trying to kill her. Violet calls him in record time and he pretends that Caroline isn’t there. As he leaves the room, he puts on a record that’s curiously out of character for such a young guy. This persuades Caroline to start looking through his things…

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As if needing Law For Dummies wasn’t enough to implicate Luke, Caroline finds photographs of herself. She also finds the same ring that was in the attic, as well as a skeleton key identical to hers. Then Luke comes into the room and chokes her out. Caroline wakes up bound and gagged in the car on the way to Violet’s house. Caroline then realises it’s not Ben they want to sacrifice; it’s her. But Violet still demands to know where Ben is, and Caroline grudgingly tells her he’s in the shed. Once Violet is gone, Caroline says she wants her father’s picture with her when it happens. But this is all just a play; Caroline gets into her room and, thanks to the brick dust she laid earlier, Luke can’t enter. Violet meanwhile incapacitates Ben in the shed, just as Caroline makes a break for it outside. She cuts her bonds and grabs the brick dust as she runs back inside, blocking all the doors. But Violet gets to the last entrance before Caroline can fix it. So Caroline has a different solution: throw her down the stairs.

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It’s important to note that Caroline looks horrified at what she has just done, even if the old woman was trying to kill her. A nice little touch, preserving her character there. She grabs the phone and takes it into the attic with her. First she calls 911 and then Jill. But Violet has crawled up the stairs and cut the phone cord. Caroline runs into the attic, which has now been set up just for her.

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Caroline remembers the spell for protection in her pocket. She creates a circle with chalk, sulfur, blood and hair. As she’s finished preparing it, Violet bursts in and declares.

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I saw this movie when I was fourteen and that line kept me giggling all the next morning. My brother didn’t know what it was all about and he was cracking up too. Violet is cracking up as well – because she’s just suckered Caroline into a trap. They’ve been waiting for her to believe – and her trying to protect herself with a Hoodoo spell is the final confirmation that she does. Luke now plays the Conjure of Sacrifice and begins the spell. Caroline screams that she doesn’t believe. The mirror in front of her flashes images of Grace Thorpe, a younger Violet and finally Mama Cecile. The mirror flies towards her and smashes into her.

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But hours later, Caroline regains consciousness. Luke walks into the room and says one word.

“Cecile?”

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There’s our big twist. ‘Violet’ was never really Violet Deveraux. The night the two black servants were lynched, Papa Justify and Mama Cecile had really used Hoodoo to trade bodies with the young Martin and Grace. So it was the two children who were lynched. Likewise, they took the bodies of Ben and Violet when the latter two bought the house. And ‘Ben’ is actually the real Luke. Cecile and Justify have been stealing bodies throughout the years. Cecile is annoyed that they couldn’t have got a black girl for her – since the times have changed and there’s no need for them to inhabit white bodies. But Luke – or should I say Justify now – sighs that the black ones always leave. And now if you watch the movie back, you’ll pick up on the following hints:

  • Violet complaining about Caroline not being from New Orleans, and her talk about tattoos – she’s being picky about the merchandise.
  • Violet wondering about Caroline’s religious beliefs – working out how hard it’ll be to make her believe.
  • Violet asking about Caroline’s parents – seeing if there’s any family members she’ll need to fool.
  • Violet’s detailed knowledge about Papa Justify and the night the servants were lynched – she’s telling her own life story.
  • Violet’s annoyance at finding Luke in Caroline’s room – she’s pissed that her husband might be hitting on another woman.

Unlike a lot of films that throw a big twist into the fray, this one is expertly crafted. The whole movie immediately makes much more sense once the twist is revealed. There’s not one point where you have to question why a character was acting a certain way or doing what they were doing. This is likewise conveyed in subtle performances from Gena Rowlands and Peter Sarsgaard – with things you pick up on the second watch. Cecile-as-Caroline now has a potion ready for Caroline-in-Violet’s body, which conveniently passes for a stroke when the paramedics arrive. Jill comes to the house too, and it’s entirely up to you to decide if she could possibly be alerted by her best friend talking like an old lady. It’s also up to interpretation if they ask Jill to go with the couple in the ambulance just to get rid of her – or if it’s part of a plan to get her to believe, so that Cecile can have a black girl. Before she goes, Justify-as-Luke tells her that the old couple left ‘Caroline’ the house. The movie ends with Cecile-as-Caroline putting on her old wedding ring, clearly ready to enjoy the new body.

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This movie was a significant hit at the time, making back its budget domestically and grossing $91 million worldwide. As far as critical opinion goes, response seemed so-so. With these kinds of movies, it’s difficult to separate the genuine opinions from the genre-biased ones. Personally, this movie does very little wrong. It approaches its subject matter in a manner that doesn’t make it feel cheesy or ridiculous, and overall creates a brilliant atmosphere. The Southern Gothic setting lends itself to some great sets and scenes, with a nice story to compliment it. The performances from the cast are the cherry on the top. Despite really showing off her talents in a different way, Kate Hudson returned to romantic comedies almost immediately. She has remained exclusively in that genre – the exceptions being The Killer Inside Me and Nine. With a string of romantic comedies under her belt, Hollywood was really trying to make her a star. Her career sort of went the same way Matthew McConaughey’s did – which is almost appropriate given she starred alongside him in How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days. But this film is an indicator that she does have that charisma. Likewise, if you watch her in Nine, you’ll see that she’s a hell of a dancer. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Kate Hudson get a career resurrection just like McConaughey. All she needs is the right script. This film proves she’s got it in her.

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It is time, lord. Time for the grades.

*Story? A nice thriller with plenty of good twists and turns, and a mystery that doesn’t fall apart once the twist is revealed. Making this a female-centred story that isn’t a slasher movie helped it a lot too. B+

*Characters? Caroline is a pretty good lead. Far from being a typical dim-witted horror female, she’s a smart and resourceful woman who can be quite the badass if she has to. As far as villains go, Cecile and Justify aren’t in the film a lot but they are no less effective. A

*Performances? Need I sing the praises of Kate Hudson anymore? But she’s equalled by Gena Rowlands playing a very sinister character. Peter Sarsgaard is somewhere in the middle – absolutely fine in some places and a little off in others. I enjoyed Joy Bryant’s smaller role as Jill. A+

*Visuals? The Southern Gothic theme was used to great effect here. A very creepy atmosphere is created, utilising the Devereaux house excellently. There are also some nicely framed and lit shots of the swamp and bayou. A+

*Special Effects? Not too many effects, but the nightmare sequences and images of the sacrifice victims on the mirror stick out. The ending shot of the house was also helped with CGI too. B-

*Anything Else? A really great jazz soundtrack helps set the scene. A

Now to move to the far east with Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Spirited Away.

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