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The Skeleton Key

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  • Noel Vera
    The hoodoo that you do By Noel Vera Iain Softley s The Skeleton Key, a smart, stylish horror flick (at least for the first half) about hoodoo (a Southern
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 25, 2005
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      The 'hoodoo' that you do

      By Noel Vera

      Iain Softley's "The Skeleton Key," a smart, stylish horror flick (at
      least for the first half) about "hoodoo" (a Southern version of
      voodoo), opens with Caroline Ellis (a thoughtful-looking Kate
      Hudson) feeling dissatisfied with her retirement home job and
      applying for another, as stay-at-home nurse to the paralyzed Ben
      Devereaux (John Hurt, as masochistic a victim as ever), and his wife
      Violet (the ever-wonderful Gena Rowlands). Caroline gradually
      notices odd little details--the total lack of mirrors throughout the
      house, for one; the door in the attic that refuses to be opened by
      her key, a skeleton key meant to open every lock in the house; the
      urgent pleading she sees in Ben's eyes, eyes that beg her for
      comfort--or are they warning her of danger?

      Softley plays the classic game of let's-scare-the-heroine as well as
      it's ever been played, with creaking floorboards and shivering doors
      and a softly moaning wind providing a constant aural background; he
      even adjusts the ambience of his silences, giving us one kind for a
      sleeping house, a different kind for a hermetically sealed room,
      suddenly opened. The lighting is admirably modulated: even the
      outdoors have a heavy, oppressed feeling, as if someone had drawn a
      curtain across the sky, and the indoors are wrapped in shadow, often
      with only the occasional eerie candle flame or flickering lightbulb
      to provide warmth.

      In Kate Hudson, Softley has a solemn protagonist who's attractive
      enough in her underwear (with a tattoo playing peek-a-boo on the
      left cheek) to keep you interested, no matter how menacing (or
      ludicrous) things become. Heroine in a horror movie isn't as easy as
      one might think; you have to serve up terror and hysteria in ever
      larger helpings, hopefully without straining believability or,
      worse, becoming repetitive. If one or two details seem unconvincing--
      why, for one, doesn't she have a cellphone (because the movie would
      end halfway through, of course--but why couldn't they at least
      account for this glaring lack of accessory)? Why, when it wasn't too
      late, doesn't she go to (or at least call) the police? Why didn't
      she quit the job when she didn't feel comfortable? The last question
      is partly answered when she looks upon Ben, desperate and helpless,
      and her face softens with the desire to help him; an actress less
      fetching would have made us laugh our heads off.

      Hudson's only part of the movie; overshadowing and dominating the
      whole like a matriarch over her unholy kingdom is Gena Rowlands as
      the sweetly sinister Violet. Rowlands comes across as an updated
      Bette Davis, a former Southern belle turned cantankerous bitch who
      seems sweet and decent after all, when you get to know her--at least
      for the first few days. Her exchanges with Caroline have the polite
      hiss of steam escaping: genteel to the ear, but scalding if you're
      not careful. They come to respect and actually develop a rapport
      with each other while Violet continues to raise all kinds of inner
      alarms--even (or perhaps especially) when all pretense falls away,
      they seem to have some kind of understanding. Perhaps even creepier
      is Caroline's scenes with Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), the Devereaux's
      lawyer: they have a scene together that's rather unique in its
      ambiguity, where Caroline confides with Luke about her suspicions
      and you're not sure if he wants to believe in her or make a pass at
      her.

      Scriptwriter Ehren Kruger, who tried (a bit too hard) to make sense
      out of the plot of Hideo Nakata's "Ringu" for the silly Gore
      Verbinski remake (it's more Verbinski's music-video affectations
      than Kruger's script that sinks the picture), and who turned the
      underrated "Ring Two" into an interesting character study, is
      actually onto something here (please skip this paragraph if you wish
      to see the movie): the odd noises and strange goings-on amount to a
      coherent, if rather implausible plan that unveils itself, step by
      teasing step, as an occult attempt at immortality by two slaves,
      Papa Justify and Mama Cecille (Ronald McCall--who had to shear off
      his dreadlocks for the role--and Jeryl Prescott, respectively). It's
      politically incorrect, the suggestion that two blacks--slaves, at
      that--would indulge in such evil; on the other hand, you could say
      that this is their way of revenging themselves on their abusive
      masters (doesn't, ah, justify them, but does allow them a compelling
      motive). At the same time, horror movies often exaggerate irrational
      or less-than-admirable fears we can't bring ourselves to admit (the
      predatory black man, the inscrutable Oriental, the sexually
      voracious woman, the strangers from outside one's town or world),
      and this picture, you might say, follows the genre conventions.
      Whatever; body transference movies often end bleakly (I'm thinking
      of Gregory Hoblit's depressing "Fallen" (1998), Mario O'Hara's
      inventive "Manananggal sa Maynila" (Monster in Manila, 1996)), and
      Kruger's script wins points for having the courage to do the same. I
      do wish he'd been able to connect the phenomena with events
      throughout history (Saul's sudden conversion to Christianity,
      turning him into St. Paul, say, or George Bush Jr.'s equally sudden
      surge of religious righteousness, propelling him into the White
      House). Would probably not make the film any more credible, but
      might lend it the kind of silly spin that would make it more
      memorable.

      Softley's little horror flick glides along so gracefully that it's
      all the more disappointing to report that he fails to maintain the
      motion; when all heck breaks loose, Caroline and Violet find
      themselves racing around the house wielding all kinds of unwieldy
      props (shotgun, jarful of brick dust, paraplegic husband)--you're
      reminded of a Buster Keaton short, only with less laughs. Worse,
      Softley decides now's the time to turn up the music real loud, use a
      kind of slowed-down motion more annoying than disturbing, and insert
      a few processed effects (digital, presumably) that would look silly
      on a Scooby Doo cartoon. It's like, after beguiling us with all
      kinds of atmospheric, old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, he
      decided to make another movie entirely, something noisier and busier
      and altogether less interesting. The personality change is so sudden
      and complete it makes you think that maybe the picture is a victim
      of its own supernatural shenanigans.

      (First published in Businessworld, 8/19/05)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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