Review: “The Skeleton Key”

What could be written off as yet another entry in the already too overstocked PG-13 supernatural thriller genre turns out to be an atmospheric piece that, at least when it avoids the cliches, delivers an efficient but generic little ghost story.

Director Iain Softley, known for his rather offbeat quirky tales like “Backbeat” and “K-Pax”, makes effective use of the humid Louisiana setting, Ehren Kruger’s well-paced script, and a reliable but small group of talented actors. The result is a slow potboiler suspense tale where the emphasis is on a quietly building sense of mystery and dread rather than jump shocks or horror thrills. This makes a welcome change in regards to the subject matter of voodoo which has been plaid more for horror value in movies like “The Serpent and The Rainbow” and “Angel Heart” than the way it is done in this.

When “Skeleton” is at its most interesting is when its exploring a facet we’ve almost never seen in these types of films before – how superstition can directly affect psychological behaviour. Voodoo and hoodoo are unique in that they rely entirely on the subject’s belief in them to have an impact – the stronger the belief, the more power these spells and symbols have over a person’s mind and body.

Despite being dubbed a ‘supernatural thriller’, most of the film is plaid real – no ghostly glimpses or unexplained phenomena. Its actually somewhat fascinating to watch not only Kate’s character delve more into believing in this stuff but other characters psychosomatic responses to powerful symbols in voodoo. One’s mind can help but wonder about the convictions of a person who can’t physically step over a line of brick dust across a door threshold simply because of what is essentially religious conditioning.

Sadly Kruger and Softley dump the more interesting and adult explorations of the mind in favour of a crowd pleasing spook house ending over the last 15-20 minutes including an unexpected albeit somewhat tired twist that’s fun but silly. It’s a shame really – instead of going for the subtler and more original style cap to an otherwise respectable if somewhat preposterous thriller, they try something so blatantly “X-Files” it makes one wonder why.

Still, despite the bum ending it doesn’t take away from the earlier moments of the film or its strengths. Amongst these is the good production values including Dan Mindel’s dripping but never overdone cinematography, Edward Shearmur’s churning score and John Beard’s beat up but effectively Southern gothic production design.

Kate Hudson finally matures into a more serious actress, ditching her perky image in favour of a very empathetic lead its easy to cheer for. Smart, pretty but realistic, it comes as a surprise that towards the end her actions become a little silly. Nevertheless, there’s a refreshing sense of assertiveness about her that makes her a good mystery film heroinne.

Early on when she discovers a hidden room in the attic she doesn’t sit back or quietly bide her time to sneak in – she does what anyone would do, outright demand to know what is going on or she’s leaving. Kruger comes up with a credible reason for her staying there in the form of John Hurt who has no dialogue and yet delivers a strong physical performance which makes perfect sense once the mystery is solved.

Sarsgaard, Bryant and in particular Rowlands all play it well – the latter at times skirting dangerously towards going hammily over the top but never quite taking it too far and then capping it off beautifully. As spooky movies go this is certainly no “The Others” or “The Ring” but its a good step or two above the level we’ve come to expect from such recent woeful efforts in the genre like “Boogeyman”, “Hide & Seek” or “Ring Two”. Its a haunted house ride that’s more unnerving than actually creepy but for those who can appreciate the more subtle take on the genre will come to appreciate its quiet horror.