The Skeleton Key is a mildly effective thriller marred by a twist ending that seems to undermine everything that made it effective in the first place. Like The Others, another supernatural thriller about a woman left mostly alone in a dark, shambling mansion, The Skeleton Key seems to suffer from “M. Night Shyamalan syndrome,” the belief that these quasi-supernatural thrillers require that the plot throw the audience a curve. Unlike The Others, however, the curveball here misses the strike zone.
What really had me intrigued through most of The Skeleton Key was the fact that it was a supernatural thriller that didn’t require you to accept the supernatural. You merely had to believe that the characters believed in it. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they needed to come down on one side or the other, but I believe the film might have been even more effective if ending had been more open to interpretation.
Caroline (Kate Hudson) is a hospice nurse who acts as a companion to terminally ill folks at a New Orleans hospital. Disgusted with the uncaring ways with which she feels her patients are being treated, she quits to take a job caring for a stroke victim named Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who lives with his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) in a creaky antebellum plantation house that looks as if it were last occupied before Sherman marched to the sea.
Caroline is given free run of the house by way of a skeleton key that opens every door in the house save the one in the attic. Aside from that, the other real oddity about the house is the fact that there are no mirrors anywhere in the house. As she begins to care for Ben, Caroline starts to notice that Ben doesn’t always seem as crippled as he is supposed to be and, in addition, seems genuinely terrified of something, maybe his wife.
The plot of The Skeleton Key centers around a form of southern folk magic known as hoodoo. While never seeming to buy completely into it, the film does effectively show the hold this superstition can have over people, especially with the back story of a scandal involving the death of two black servants during a party decades earlier.
Kate Hudson is appealing and convincing as the skeptical city girl who nonetheless starts to believe something is horribly wrong in this house. The real flaw in her character is how she never seems to spend much time caring for Ben after she starts playing detective. The film also makes use of her considerable physical charms by way of a wholly gratuitous bath scene.
Gena Rowlands manages to be equal parts menacing and sympathetic while John Hurt gives a remarkably dimensional performance, given Ben’s limitations and the fact that the film often treats him more like a prop than a character. Peter Sarsgaard is also on hand as the Devereaux’s slick and skeptical lawyer. Don’t expect to remember much about his character after you’ve finished the movie.
The Skeleton Key does have things to recommend it, beyond a trio of good performances. The film gets maximum mileage and atmosphere out of its New Orleans and Louisiana locations. It could have been an even more effective story of the power of suggestion over even the most skeptical minds. Its insistence on going for the supernatural twist ending renders it a routine but entertaining thriller.