Defending “The Skeleton Key”

Lincoln HayesHorror, Movies, Opinion, ReviewsLeave a Comment

Always take reviews with a grain of salt. Personal biases, circumstantial situations when viewing the film, and, of course, the quality of the film itself come into play for any reviewer when they sit down to write their reactions. But sometimes a reviewer needs to go to bat for a film that is arguably better than the consensus would have you believe. I am here today to defend the 2005 Kate Hudson thriller “The Skeleton Key” because it is a fun, spooky flick.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Reviewers across the Internet have taken umbrage with this film for some reason and I was shocked to find it rated so low when I came across it on Peacock the other night. October is obviously Spooky Season and my wife and I are always on the hunt for something to watch with the lights off under a blanket with our cats.

She first saw this in the theater with her mom and they were both delightfully surprised by how good it was, her mother being born and raised in Louisiana and my wife having a love for the deep South and magic. I saw it in the theater as well and, while expecting a dumb attempt at horror with a rom-com star, I was also delighted by how spooky and twisty/turny this was.

Years later, our mutual love of this film came to light and we were delighted to have this as a go-to spooky movie. We have a handful of scary movies we’ll always watch, namely “The Conjuring”, “Ready or Not”, “Halloween” to name a few, but also this film.

Never read reviews (except mine, of course)

So you can imagine our surprise when we found this rated so abysmally on various streaming and review sites! Two stars?? How? Why? Many of them call the film “half-baked”, “atmospheric but with few scares”, or even worse, “blame Kate Hudson”. That’s where I draw the line.

In my mind, this may be one of her best roles, short of “Almost Famous”, obviously. She plays the skeptic to the letter in this film. She’s flawed in her methods and stubborn in thinking she has the right answer. Her actions are well-intended, but ultimately lead to her downfall because she refuses to see the whole picture.

Even still, let’s break down her character a bit more. She’s a hospice nurse in Louisiana. ROUGH, dude. She’s fed up that she spends so much time caring for people at the end of their life only to have the facility haul their bodies off before they’re even cold because they need the bed space. She takes a job for a private family to do her job without the oversight of a hospital or facility. She believes she can do some good for once for this man at the end of his life.

When she thinks something is wrong, she does something about it. Violet skeeves her out and, while she doesn’t subscribe to witchcraft or hoodoo from the onset, she’s willing enough to hear what it’s about.

She could have left. She could have quit and moved on to something else, but he stay to help this man who couldn’t help himself. Flawed as she may be, she’s the hero of the film. She performs a cleansing ritual she doesn’t believe because he does. She is going WAY out of her way for this man because she believes it’s the right thing to do.

Explain to me how we “blame Kate Hudson” for reviewers not liking this movie?

Please educate me as to why this is “bad”

I’ve learned to not say others are wrong for their opinions on things that I like (that’s gatekeeping and I’ve been guilty of doing it for a long time. I’m trying to be better), but instead attempt to discuss why they feel differently. I would love to talk to someone who thought this was “…much more difficult to decide whether The Skeleton Key is mildly offensive or nicely provocative – or for that matter if it is dreadfully silly or actually quite smart,” as Grant Watson of Fiction Machine wrote on Rotten Tomatoes.

Which parts are mildly offensive? The hoodoo? The characters of Papa Justify and Mama Cecile? The desire of Violet for her next body to be a black woman? I honestly want to know. I thought all of these were handled carefully and truthfully to the story. Does it seem insensitive that the black characters feel required to enter the bodies of white people to continue living? I can see that. I also see how they could feel it is necessary maintain their ruse in order to stay in their house. It was owned by white plantation owners, then passed on to their children, then the bodies they now inhabit after those children got too old. It is Louisiana, after all, and 16 years ago.

Another review said, “The voodoo lore is sketchy (it can’t hurt unbelievers, except when it can), the plot obviously little but build-up to the big reveal.” This is particularly interesting considering the reviewer, Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic.com has a picture of Indiana Jones as his avatar and this very same plot device is used in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Indy must believe in order to cross the chasm to save his father. A leap of faith.

So, how is this different? In order for the possession ritual to work, she would need to be open to the concept. Believing in it to make it real. Once she believes (even though she denies it to the very end), the spirit of Mama Cecile can enter her as planned. If Caroline had simply left the house, she wouldn’t have been in danger. As soon as she does the ritual for Ben, she’s open to the idea of all of it being real, and therefore becomes a target.

Fine; you don’t like it. What would you improve?

Let’s agree to disagree. What, then, would you do to improve this film? Peter Sarsgaard does a fantastic job as Luke Marshall, the estate lawyer helping out the Devereauxs after Ben’s stroke. Repeat viewings begin to show the cracks in his façade: the beginner law books, his dismissal of Caroline’s concerns about Violet’s behavior, even his own behavior with Violet is subtle and nuanced. In the scene when Violet falls down the stairs, his performance is that of a loving and dedicated husband, agonizing because his own magic is preventing him from taking care of her when injured.

I’ve also read negative reviews of Gena Rowlands portrayal of Violet, calling it over the top and high camp. Apparently, none of these reviewers ever met my wife’s grandmother or any older woman from Louisiana. There’s very little over the top about Rowlands’ performance, especially upon repeat viewings. Is her behavior odd? Of course. She’s also playing a woman decades-older than she actually is, with mannerisms and colloquialisms from a bygone era. It should be anachronistic. It should feel “off”. BECAUSE IT IS. Remember when Caroline says “fiddlesticks” at the end of the film? Is that over the top too?

Again, this is where things get dicey: a white woman is playing the soul of a black woman. Not great. However, her performances does not demean, ridicule, or make light of anything about her being a black woman. Possession in film is always tricky when other races and cultures are involved. Could this have been corrected with casting? Probably, but it would have changed the foundation of the story. This is a change that could have improved the film.

The rest of the cast are superb, the locations are haunting and beautiful, and the story is engaging. I ask again, what would the nay-sayers improve?

Two words: John Hurt

I can’t attempt to defend this film without discussing the greatness of the late-great John Hurt as Ben. Presumed to have had a stroke, Ben is paralyzed and non-verbal. Caroline is hired to help Violet care for him at the end of his life. But as things unravel, so does the enchantment placed upon him, allowing him brief moments of lucidity, movement, and eventually speech.

Imagine being John Hurt and getting this script. “You won’t have any lines until the third act and you spend most of the film either in a wheelchair or bedridden.” Not many actors would agree to that role, least of all actors of his level. But he took it, seemingly because he too saw more than was on the page.

Hurt gives the stand-out performance of “The Skeleton Key”. His pain, heartbreak, fear, and desperation are all conveyed with nary a word and barely a movement. His work with Hudson elevates her own performance. Once you’ve seen the film and know he’s actually Luke trapped in Ben’s body, ever single sound and movement is elevated to a new level. He’s brilliant in this film and it doesn’t seem like anyone talks about it in their reviews.

It’s not for everyone

Not all movies are for everyone. My wife loves Hudson in “Bride Wars”. I love her in this. Some people don’t like scary movies. I love supernatural thrillers. I will concede this may not be for everyone, but I certainly think “The Skeleton Key” deserves better than it’s gotten.

Give it a rewatch. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Snack Packs

Lincoln L. Hayes is an actor and writer in NYC. Happy Halloween everybody!

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Lincoln HayesDefending “The Skeleton Key”