Title: The Skeleton Key
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
Director: Iain Softley
Screenwriters: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant
Tell me a good story, and you can have your way with me, cinematically speaking. Few recent movies illustrate this all-important principle as well as The Skeleton Key, a thoroughly absurd southern gothic horror movie that had me jumping, breathless, and giggling all the way through despite growing sillier by the minute. It tells its far-fetched tale with conviction and skill, refusing to back off or cop out with irony, launching into the outlandish with headstrong determination, not even batting an eye. And it’s a long-in-the-making return to form for screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who made a gangbusters debut with Arlington Road before stooping to the likes of Scream 3 and The Ring.
The Skeleton Key does fall in with the arguably regrettable PG-13 horror tradition, but only in that it is a horror film that is rated PG-13. Fortunately, it breaks with the trend by being as grotesque and disturbing as it should be; there’s nary a moment when the film feels toned down or edited for severity. The simple fact is that it doesn’t depend on gore or envelope-pushing violence for its impact. There are moments and images that will stick with me, but they come about for different reasons: the fact that the film takes the time to develop its own modified Voodoo iconography helps, as does a wonderfully reckless performance by Gena Rowlands. Don’t bring the toddlers, but thoughtful and resilient 13 year-olds, say, should enjoy it.
The story centers on Voodoo magic, but it’s not the incoherent pseudo-mystical muddle you might expect from the concept. This is mostly because Kruger wisely chose to develop it as a mystery rather than a full-on horrorshow. Kate Hudson gets the opportunity to gain some genre film chops as Caroline, a caretaker who moves into a mansion deep in the swamps of Louisiana to take care of a bedridden man (John Hurt) who, she’s told, is living out his last days after a severe stroke. She shares the house with him and his creepy, somewhat bigoted wife (Gena Rowlands), who has hidden all the mirrors and insists that she will “live as if [Caroline] were not in residence.”
There’s a mysterious locked room upstairs that even the master “skeleton” key won’t open, of course, and an eccentric local gas station with a mysterious line of brick dust sprinkled across the doorway. The film relies on formula to a certain extent, but it’s surprisingly disinterested in conventional scares — I can only recall one attempt at a jump, which was moderately effective. I suppose “atmospheric” is an appropriate descriptor, but not in the way I usually think of the term; the emphasis isn’t on production design, either, and though it is well-directed by Iain Softley, few will leave the movie raving about its visual accomplishments.
No, what The Skeleton Key is most concerned with is moving its story forward. There’s a refreshing cleanliness and sparseness to the storytelling here — no digressions into drawn-out horror set pieces, no gratuitous displays of violence and gore. The plot follows the rules and breaks no new ground, but the movie has complete confidence in it and refuses to dilute it. And the ending is rare in being both a surprise and a competent resolution, a mild and effective twist that ties the story together and gives it an interesting new bent.
But most importantly, the movie moves well enough that when the action escalates from the far-fetched into the downright goofy, with people running around and sprinkling brick dust all over the place, I went right along with it. Out of context, some of what we see here is just supremely silly, but The Skeleton Key makes it make sense. I laughed a few times in the last twenty minutes of the film, but they were laughs of delight, not derision. Kruger and Softley earn their all-stops-out climax and ending.
Everyone involved in the production has done his or her job with unfailing professionalism. Gena Rowlands, more well-known for playing nice elderly ladies than anything else, gives a genuinely ambiguous performance, such that we genuinely don’t know which way her character swings until the movie decides to tip its hand late in the going. Even Kate Hudson, in an undemanding role, isn’t nearly as obnoxious as she has been of late, succeeding in making her character sympathetic and, believe it or not, somewhat intelligent. And Iain Softley toys around with some neat stylistic touches that don’t overwhelm the film but give him just enough of a signature.
The horror genre is extremely susceptible to trends, as studios greenlight and filmmakers take on projects that imitate what has been successful lately. If this sort of plot-driven horror is the next thing to take off, I will be beside myself with geeked-out glee. This, at least, is a terrific late summer surprise.