Hello Boys and Girls, I’m back from Vegas. Yes, I had a good time, thanks for asking. I would like to say a big ‘Thank You’ to the United States for having myself and my family in your country. We saw some great shows, met some fascinating people and made some new friends. What more could you ask for from a holiday? Sorry, ‘Vacation’.
This review is a number of firsts. Two to be exact. It’s the first review I’ve done since coming back from America but it’s also the first review I’ve done upon recommendation. Everything on this site is either something that I adore and want to promote or it’s a cinematic abomination that I have to strap to a table so I can dig out ‘the equipment’. So what category does ‘The Skeleton Key’ fall under? All in good time. First off, let’s have a look at the plot.
The plot centres around Caroline (Kate Hudson) who works as a nurse in a hospice. She decides to leave her job and become a personal care assistant for an elderly gentleman, Ben Devereaux who’s played by the dearly missed, Sir John Vincent Hurt CBE. Ben is cared for by his wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands) and they are visited by their family lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard). Caroline moves into their sizeable Louisiana house and things start out fine until cracks start to appear.
At first glance, ‘The Skeleton Key’ might look like the classic ‘paint by numbers’, direct to DVD type film that you’d find in a ‘two for one’ bin in a supermarket or given away with a large pizza from a popular fast-food chain but you’d be wrong and should be ashamed. We need to look under the surface.
For me, first impressions of this film are good. There are a limited amount of main characters on this menu and that’s a positive move. It means that there’s less flab. The script can be tighter and there’s more room for the main characters to expand. In the last 10-15 years or so, horror films have gotten into a bad habit of involving characters that are only there to either serve as a motivation for the main character or die horribly and provide shock value but that’s not the case here. There is a lot of story on display and not just for the house and it’s history but also in the characters specifically Caroline. What I like about her is that her actions define her character and her background rather than the script using the ‘tell, don’t show’ method.
‘The Skeleton Key’ was written by Ehren Kruger and he tends to be unpredictable as a screenwriter. With him, you never know if you’re going to get solid gold like ‘Scream 3’ or a massive pile of horse shit like ‘Rings (2017)’. In this case, I think that a lot was packed into the script what with the history of the house, the family, the servants in the past, the Hoodoo and other stuff on top but I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it I understood by the end. Packing a lot of stuff into a screenplay isn’t always a bad thing if it’s done right. If it is done right then you can be offering a film with some re-play value because every time you watch it, you’ll get something new that you may not have spotted before.
What with the film being set in Louisiana, it’s only appropriate that a good chunk of the film was shot there. The house used as the base of operations for the plot was called ‘Terrebonne Parish’ in the film but the house is really a historic building in Louisiana called ‘Felicity Plantation’ which is on the Mississippi River in Saint James Parish. As is typical, the production scouted for appropriate houses for the film. They happened upon the Felicity Plantation and were granted permission by the owners to film there. Other sets used for the film such as the garage used in the last act were built separately on the grounds of the property by the production. Filming began in April of 2004 and lasted until October of the same year. The year after, Hurricane Katrina hit the South and the Felicity Plantation was damaged during the storms however, the building has since been restored.
One film that I was reminded of was a little Wes Craven production, ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ which is about an anthropologist (Bill Pullman) who travels to Haiti and comes under the influence of a Voodoo drug which is given to a person who is then buried alive and then ‘resurrected’.
The main element running through this film is not Voodoo like in ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ but this time it’s the use of Hoodoo. It’s explained in the movie that the difference between the two is that Voodoo is a religion but Hoodoo is a form of magic. I’ve done a little bit of digging and I’ve read that modern Voodoo or ‘Vodun’ is practised more in West Africa as a belief system whilst Hoodoo is a mixture of both spirituality and magic. Since around the 19th Century, the spirits worshipped in Hoodoo share more of a harmony with the Roman Catholic Saints and carry more of a Christian influence.
Both Voodoo and Hoodoo are mostly practised in the American South in such communities within Louisiana and also in the islands situated around the American Mainland such as The Dominican Republic, Cuba and Haiti.
Along with Hoodoo, the issue of belief also plays a major part in the films plot. We’re veering into spoiler territory now so watch out.
Caroline has been told that Ben has suffered a stroke and has been paralysed down both sides of his body, making him bedridden but later into the film when Hoodoo begins to be introduced, Caroline thinks that someone has cast a spell over Ben that has kept him in a speechless and subdued condition. Caroline comes to the conclusion that if a spell put him in that condition then there must be a spell to reverse it. When her friend, Jill (Joy Bryant) asks her why she’s going to perform a Hoodoo spell when she doesn’t believe in Hoodoo, she responds that Ben believes in it and if Ben believes that he’s cured, then he will be cured. I think that’s how a lot of drug trials work.
The history of Terrebonne Parish is also revealed by Violet. 90 years before the film is set, The family that lived at the Parish employed two African American servants, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) who lived in the attic. One night, the family were having a party with some high society folks. The party goers for reason thought it would be fun to find the families two children. After a lot of searching, they find the children in the attic with the servants who are performing a ritual with the children in their presence. The party goers and the parents remove the servants and execute them by hanging them from a large tree and then setting them on fire. If this was a ghost film, I could see why there would be some vengeful spirits hanging around but this isn’t a ghost film, this is something different. I’m going to have to spoil the big twist at the end because it’s one of the big reasons as to why I like this film so if you don’t want to know the ending then… you know.
When this film was mentioned to me, I didn’t think that I’d seen it but when I watched the ending, I realised that I had seen it albeit over ten years ago.
When I watched the film, I’ll tell you what I thought was going to happen. I thought that the handsome lawyer, Luke would be the love interest and he and Caroline would defeat the evil Violet and they would win the day and get together and it’s the classic American ending. Boy, was I wrong. Here’s what actually happens.
With the Hoodoo firmly implemented into the plot, Caroline believes that Violet will cast a spell on Ben that will ‘steal the remaining years’ of his life. That’s not quite what the spell means. Actually, it means that the person who cast the spell will change places with their victim which is what happened 90 years ago. The servants switched places with the children and it was actually the children in the servants’ bodies that were killed. Papa Justify is currently in Luke’s body whilst Mama Cecile is in Violet’s body. The real Luke resides in Ben’s body which was why Violet kept him subdued. In the grand finale, Caroline realises that she was brought to the house so that Violet could switch places with her and regain her youth. Everyone with me? Well keep holding on because here comes the clever part.
Constantly when I watch horror films, I wonder why the killer doesn’t just tear their victims apart and get on with it? All this messing around and wasting time when the target has every opportunity to get away or call for help when the killer could just be doing what killers do. In ‘The Skeleton Key’, that question is answered.
Violet invited Caroline into the house and exposed her to Hoodoo in the effort to get her to believe in the power of Hoodoo. This gets Caroline in an awkward position. Caroline ends up in the attic having surrounded herself in a circle of protection that stops anyone that means her harm from crossing it. But Violet has already prepared the ‘Conjure of Sacrifice’ or the ‘body-swapping’ spell as I’ve been calling it. Since Caroline believes in the protection spell then she must believe in the Conjure of Sacrifice and she will be swapped with Violet/Mama Cecile. If Caroline refuses to believe then the protection spell will no longer work and ‘Luke/Papa Justify’ will kill her.
The inevitable happens and Caroline is swapped with Violet/Mama Cecile. Violet/Caroline’s body is subdued with the same potion that kept Ben/Luke motionless. In the morning, Violet/Caroline and Ben/Luke are taken away in an ambulance whilst Caroline/Mama Cecile and Luke/Papa Justify reveal that the house has been left to Caroline so Mama Cecile and Papa Justify will be free to continue and swap bodies with whoever they want. It was a dark, depressing ending that cheered me right up.
With a budget of $43 Million, ‘The Skeleton Key’ was released in the US on August 12th, 2005 reaching No.2 at the box office and making $47.9 Million in it’s US run. The film was then released worldwide and made a further $44.1 Million making a grand total of $92 Million, more than doubling it’s budget. That’s not bad.
Reviews for the film were generally mixed. Whilst some appreciated the locations and the history, others felt that the film took too long to get going and lacked the vital tension and suspense.
I think the big mistake was marketing this as a ‘Supernatural Horror’ when it’s more of a ‘Thriller’. Horror films are made to shock and terrify whilst Thrillers are made to give the audience a good mystery and make them think. The audience and the critics went in with the wrong idea of what the film was and what it was meant to do and for that, the film got a bad wrap. I’m here to tell you all that ‘The Skeleton Key’ is a good movie with some great twists and turns and a finale that genuinely surprised me.
I’ll round this review off by offering a thank you for the recommendation and hereby open up the doors for all my lucky readers to throw some suggestions into the pot. If anyone’s got anything they want me to look at then send some titles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please, don’t be shy because honestly, I’m running out of things to shout about.