With the exception of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Kate Hudson’s movies haven’t fared too well at the box office. Alex & Emma, The Four Feathers and Raising Helen each stopped far short of expectations. And, much as it didn’t deserve its fate, Almost Famous only became so from a critical standpoint.
The Skelton Key, from director Iain Softley (K-PAX, was released in mid August of last year, and took in a modest 48 million. Not a bad haul for late-summer, supernatural thriller. The movie had some legs, too, clearing close to 20 million in September alone. Maybe that’s what good word-of-mouth can account for? Because The Skeleton Key isn’t a bad movie; all you have to do is give it chance.
To be fair, I must tell you I’m a converted fan. I didn’t think much of the movie at first. I didn’t consider it in any way exceptional after watching it for 45 minutes. But, somewhere after that, it hooked me. It took me out, got me drunk, and had its way with me.
So here’s the set-up. Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, a hospice worker in New Orleans who takes a job as a nurse for Ben (John Hurt), who, having recently suffered a stroke, is unable to speak. The upside is she’ll make good money for school. The downside is she has to move upstate and live under the watchful eye of the man’s wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands). Upon arriving at the house, Caroline meets Luke (Peter Sargaard), the couple’s attorney. And Violet, with some haste, explains the house rules to Caroline. An important one is no mirrors; which anyone, of course, would find a little strange.
I have one rule for a good ghost story: No short cuts. What I mean by that is, if the movie goes out of its way to show too much, too early, it says the filmmakers are worried they’ll lose you. But when they things slowly, building the structure of the story and its characters, you’ll feel it. It’ll weird you out. Movies like The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Shining develop slowly. They work on you. So does The Skeleton Key, though I wouldn’t put it on same top shelf with the aforementioned.
Step by step, we learn Violet and Ben’s backstory, and how it’s intertwined with the history of the house. The house itself is a character (an element synonymous with ghost stories), and the metaphorical connection to its past is a Skeleton Key. “Every door has a key,” Violet tells Caroline. “And one key opens them all.” Now what happens when you tell someone they can’t open a door?
As Caroline endeavors to help Ben, she’s altered by the few words she’s able to coax from him. He wants to get out of the house, pronto. What’s more, Caroline beings having vivid nightmares that seem to offer hints as to why she should get Ben out of there. So, she takes it upon herself to investigate certain rooms in the house, including the attic. What she finds is a collection of mirrors, and scattered evidence that the house’s prior residents were Voodoo practitioners; and even worse, practitioners of Hoodoo – a more dangerous variant of Voodoo.
Caroline doesn’t want to believe this, but the evidence becomes overwhelming. “Time to leave,” she tells Violet. But that’s a little hard to do when confinement spells have been cast upon certain areas of the house. Caroline goes out of her way to prove to herself that these spells work. She wants to see if she can entice a spirit to enter a room. The scene offers a riveting stand-off between Caroline and a spirit from the house’s past.
The Skeleton Key is slowly paced, but I invite you to stay with it. You find it be a movie that generates its full effect in the last half hour. And when the credits start rolling, you’ll be eager to watch it again and search for clues. Just give Ms. Hudson a chance.