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Skeleton Key
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont, © 2005

Format: Movie
Genre:   Horror
Released:   August 12, 2005
Review Date:   August 08, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated PG-13
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

Everything I know about America I've learned from watching movies.

I know, for example, that the popular girls in school always carry a torch for the geekiest guys. And I know the truth about the American countryside. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it is that the second you step outside the city, everyone you meet is a potential murderer and rapist.

So I wasn't fooled when I visited the U.S.a few years ago and someone asked me the time. Oh, that's how it starts — "Do you have the time," "Sir, you can't park there," "Hello, I'm the governor of Rhode Island" — but within minutes they'll have you squealing like a pig.

The new film by the writer of The Ring 2 and the director of Hackers won't be making anyone feel better about leaving the city.

The Skeleton Key tells the story of Caroline, a New Orleans care assistant who, disgruntled with the hospital system, takes a job caring for a stroke victim who lives out in the swamps of Louisiana. However, the elderly couple she is working for and the house she is living in have a sinister history of black magic—New Orleans hoodoo—and as things get stranger and stranger she finds herself starting to believe.

The Skeleton Key is a hugely atmospheric film. The opening scenes in New Orleans are anonymous enough to portray any big modern American city. However, once Caroline leaves the city for her new job she seems to leave modern America behind and pass into a rural America that is alien and forbidding.

While Skeleton Key is well handled on a technical level and beautiful to look at, its atmosphere clearly channels the ghosts of cinema past. Like I Spit on Your Grave and Deliverance before it, Skeleton Key works with that old chestnut of urban vs. rural enmity. Initially it shovels on the clichés so heavily that you half expect to see some fat sheriff in a diner fanning himself with a Bible while asking for grits because he's worked up an appetite from raping canoeists and chasing them Duke boys. Mercifully, the clichés level out quite quickly and the meat of the movie is substantially better.

Skeleton Key is essentially about belief. Instead of emulating Neil Gaiman's remixing of mythology or the synthetic myth of Tim Powers, the film uses a real belief system to fuel its horror. Interestingly though, it also relies upon the beliefs of the audience to lead it to red herrings as the plot unfolds. The story twists and turns, and each time you think you have worked out what's going on the ground shifts again and you are left jumping to new conclusions.

The result is a film that is very well structured. It builds and releases nicely, despite being overly reliant upon major chords and cheap jump-scares. The Skeleton Key also obeys the iron law of horror cinema by giving the threat a set of weaknesses that allow Caroline to fight back (which was a pleasant surprise after the illogical quasi-omnipotence of the threat in Kruger's last film, The Ring 2).

While Skeleton Key is technically solid as a horror film, however, it's regrettable that Softley didn't choose to focus on the question of belief. There are moments when it threatens to turn into a truly innovative psychological thriller. Hoodoo works on you only if you believe in it, and the film ties this nicely into the treatment of psychosomatic illnesses and real-life studies of Haitian zombies, where people who believe in magic literally will its effects upon themselves. Similarly, Caroline uses her medical training to drug one of her oppressors, and there is a hint that technology is just another form of magic (an idea explored in the classic cartoon Flight of Dragons).

Sadly, the film's final reveal and twist, while fun and interesting, ultimately dispels all ambiguity about the reality of hoodoo and the truth of what went on in the film. As The Usual Suspects showed us, sometimes it's better to withhold a sense of closure and make the audience think about what was actually going on.

Despite Kruger's lower-brow-than-necessary script, Skeleton Key is a well-made film with good ideas. The acting is also genuinely good; John Hurt's almost wordless performance reminds us what a good actor he can be.

It's a solid horror film that could have been a hell of a lot better.

RevolutionSF contributor Jonathan McCalmont can still hear his old hound dog barking, chasing down a hoodoo there. (Or that might just be the train.)

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