THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS!
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It’s very close to Halloween, and so it’s fitting that I review a horror movie. Last night I sat down to watch Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key with Kate Hudson. I’ve seen this film before, but it was a long long time ago when I was quite young, and I could barely remember any details. Interestingly, my friend told me that the film has received negative criticism for its racist undertones, and so I was intrigued to see how I’d react to it.
The story follows Caroline Ellis (Hudson) as she arrives at a plantation house in a bayou of southern Louisiana to care for stroke victim Benjamin Devereaux (John Hurt), whose movement and speech is severely restricted. The house is run by Violet Devereaux, played by the brilliant Gena Rowlands, who is immediately hostile towards Caroline. Suspicions rise as Benjamin seems to be calling out for help from his new carer through pleading looks in his eyes and sudden wrist grabbings etc. This continues until Caroline decides to check out the attic (as all blonde female leads do in creepy horror movies). She finds a blocked off and locked door that her “skeleton key” won’t open, (another device used frequently in ghost stories). Inside this room is the key (excuse the pun) to all the mysteries behind Ben’s illness. This is a pretty decent movie that offers some jumps and a solid twist at the end.
What’s wrong with it then? And why do so many people hate it?
I think the answer lies in the ignorant and damning portrayal of Southern life. The black servants who have inhabited the bodies of Violet and smarmy estate lawyer Luke Marshall are portrayed as intensely vain and self absorbed characters whose bitterness has transformed them into monsters. Their initial “crime” in the 1920s that saw them hung by the white rich aristocrats is never explained, and the flashbacks of them teaching children Hoodoo, where their eyes are rolled back and their bodies shake, only further enhances their monstrosity and creepiness. They are robbed of all personality and depth, and reduced to a savage couple with no heart. The Hoodoo way of life is similarly two dimensional in its presentation, the intricacies of its practices represented flimsily by a couple of faded pages and some dirty water. Jill’s explanation of it outside the laundrette sounds like it was lifted straight from Wikipedia. Caroline, the white blonde bombshell carer with a kind heart, has come into the situation to save the day and to rescue the crippled old white man from the crazed servant spirits, and when viewed this way you can see how the film leaves a bitter taste for most. The characters of Mama Cecile and Papa Justify are given no voice in the flashbacks, and we see nothing of their relationship with the children outside of their Hoodoo ritual. Their opinions only come through the mouths of the white bodies they have possessed, and so their identities are lost and displaced. This is where the film falls short. Its plot (and plot twist) relies completely upon the history and pain of characters that it fails to develop satisfactorily.
Despite this, I have to say that the film isn’t as bad as some critics make out. It doesn’t deserve the 1 or 2 stars that I’ve seen it be given. It’s cinematography is decent, with the soggy Louisiana setting coming across beautifully on screen. And the acting, despite the weak script, is superb. Gena Rowlands, Jon Hurt and Peter Sarsgaard are all amazing. I wish that they’d have been given more opportunity to show their talents.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★