Synopsis: A hospice nurse working at a spooky New Orleans plantation home finds herself entangled in a mystery involving the house’s dark past.
Stars: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant
Director: Iain Softley
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Released in mid-August of 2005, it’s easy to see on reflection why The Skeleton Key didn’t unlock much business at the box office. Back then, summer was about those critical months for blockbusters between May and July. That final blazing hot month of August was usually reserved for bold swing comedies which studios pushed out with their fingers crossed. So, understanding that this Kate Hudson thriller came out a week after The Wedding Crashers was knocked off the #1 slot by the big-screen adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard gives you more context to its early reputation as a flop that sunk fast. Let’s not forget it barely had time to gather momentum before The 40-Year-Old Virgin arrived the following weekend.
Good movies eventually find their audiences, though, and over the last 17 years, The Skeleton Key has often meandered its way to a deservedly high position on the “Best Scary Movies to Watch Now” lists you may have searched for. Written by Ehren Krueger, hot off the American adaptation of The Ring and still contributing to success in 2022 with Top Gun: Maverick, this Universal Studios film boasts a small but mighty cast of strong actors and a reliably spooky setting. Despite some slightly cringe-y and questionable cultural missteps in writing and some phoned-in directing (by the amazingly named Iain Softley), it’s an assured good time for those seeking a firmly PG-13 scare.
Coping with unresolved issues with her late father by dedicating herself to hospice care work, Caroline (Hudson, Mother’s Day) accepts a live-in job for Ben, a recent stroke victim (John Hurt, Jackie) at a remote plantation home in the New Orleans bayou. A lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) hired by the man’s wife Violet (Gena Rowlands, The Notebook) to oversee the estate assures Caroline that the work will be easy; it will be dealing with the headstrong Violet that will be the biggest chore. Supposedly the last nurse hired quit, but Caroline is determined to stick it out no matter the personality differences, especially after seeing Ben’s state of despair.
Moving into the isolated house and given a skeleton key that opens its numerous rooms, Caroline is immersed in the couple’s lives and quickly learns their strange ways. Violet has her routines with Ben and expects Caroline to stick to her prescribed “remedies” to keep him calm. Of course, when finding a locked door in the dusty attic, she can’t help but be curious as to what may be behind a space meant to be off-limits. Using her key and a suitable time when Violet is otherwise distracted, she discovers remnants of local occultism and evidence of the conjuring and rituals used by previous house inhabitants.
Convinced Ben’s stroke-like state is due to one such ritual likely inflicted by Violet, Caroline delves into the tradition of Hoodoo and how it may have come to target her patient. The closer she finds the source, the more the target of a growing evil appears to point in her direction. Learning a few simple tricks of her own may stave off a casual conjuring, but it can’t compete with practitioners with a plan, a plan bigger than Caroline could ever imagine.
I remember seeing The Skeleton Key when it was released in theaters and reacting like many then, finding it to be serviceable entertainment with an ending that’s difficult to unpack in the moment. By the time you returned to your car, you’d nearly forgotten it all. What changed over the last two decades? Well, it is one of those movies that’s better on a second watch once you know the ending and can see how Krueger drops hints along the way of what’s to come. Understanding that going in makes subsequent viewings of The Skeleton Key incredibly fun. Just the other night, when I watched it with friends, we could pause it after the big reveal and connect some dots, something audiences couldn’t do in theaters back in 2005. Naturally, not understanding how it all fit together (and not being given enough time to do so) would leave you frustrated.
Not seeing it in so long, you also forget how good the performances are. Even six years into her career, Hudson was riding her peak rom-com wave, so The Skeleton Key was seen as a bit of a left-turn change-up. She’s good here, and while I would have liked to see some more diversity overall in the cast (Parenthood’s Joy Bryant is frustratingly just the black best friend who conveniently is there to explain the ethos of Hoodoo to her white pig-tailed roommate), Hudson is more than appropriate for the role. She pairs nicely with Rowlands as an aged Southern belle type that says things like “Fiddlesticks” and ends most phrases with “child,” No one can switch from sweet to menace and back again quite as pointedly as Rowlands and this is a great example. The late Hurt impresses as usual with an essentially non-verbal but physically demanding role, while Sarsgaard’s Southern accent is less present than he is in the movie.
Worth a rewatch in October or any month you feel the urge, The Skeleton Key has already had its history rewritten by viewers who have discovered it again at home. It’s an excellent model for how a movie can open with a whimper but roar back over the years on good word of mouth. If you’ve never seen it, make sure to take your time to absorb the finale. If it’s been a while, welcome back. You’ll be glad you came back for a return visit.