Skeleton Key: Iain Softley’s Old-Fashioned Supernatural Horror Thriller

Lushly atmospheric and sporadically haunting, Iain Softley’s “The Skeleton Key” is an old-fashioned supernatural horror thriller that refreshingly relies on characters and actors rather than CG special effects.

A well-crafted genre film, “Skeleton Key revisits the Southern Gothic picture, borrowing elements from the “Haunted Mansion” picture, from classic Hollywood chestnuts, such as “Rebecca,” “Gaslight,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” all the way to more recent ones, “Angel Heart,” “The Stepfather,” and “The Gift.”

In her first major dramatic role, Kate Hudson commands the screen in a demanding turn that requires her presence in almost every scene, and calls for stunts that reportedly the actress has done herself. Strong support is lent by the secondary cast, headed by Gena Rowlands and John Hurt, as the bizarre couple that inhabits the spooky house. “Skeleton Key” may be one of Hollywood’s few horror flicks that offers not one but two strong female parts, relegating the men, including Peter Sarsgaard, to second bananas.

The contemporary set-up and first reel in general are terrific, before the films descends in the mid-section to some preposterous plotting and generic clichs. Nonetheless, “Skeleton Key” ends with a surprise, if cynical ending, that leaves room for a sequel if the picture is successful at the box-office

Caroline Ellis (Hudson) is a strong-minded, driven woman, who suffers from deep guilt over not being next to her father when he died. When first seen, in an extremely satisfying overture, Caroline is reading from a book to a black patient, just minutes before he dies.

Determined to make enough money to attend nursing school, the dedicated hospice worker takes a job as a live-in caretaker for an elderly woman, Violet Devereaux (Rowlands), who lives with her crippled husband Ben (Hurt) in an isolated plantation house, just an hour drive outside of New Orleans. The house is located deep in the atmospheric Louisiana Delta, renowned for the mystical practices and powerful ceremonies of its local residents.

The first encounter between Violet and Caroline is full of suspicions, based on Violet’s bias against the young employee. “Youre not from New Orleans,” Violet says with contempt, and, indeed, Caroline is an outsider (in more senses than one), originally from Hoboken, New Jersey.

The decrepit Terrebone Parish mansion is home to born-and-bred Southerners Violet and ailing husband Ben, confined to a wheelchair, after a stroke has left him nearly paralyzed and mute. Both the house and its occupants seem weighted with somber histories and mysterious burdens from the past.

To make maneuvering in the huge mansion easier, Violet entrusts Caroline with a skeleton key that is supposed to unlock every door. Soon, however, Caroline discovers a door, obscured by a bookcase at the back of the house’s attic. The tale cashes in on the universal desire to find out what’s behind the forbidden door. Watching Caroline’s dreaded yet seductive visits to the attic brings to mind other screen heroines, such as Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca” and Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight,” doing the same thing, with the same push-and-pull drive.

Violet is a faded southern belle, living with her ailing husband in a decaying mansion deep in the Louisiana bayou. She’s a spooky old lady who spends much of her time in the garden and has to work hard at keeping Caroline off-balance. The surface appearance of the enigmatic couple belies an unspoken and mysterious subtext. It soon becomes clear that their relationship is not at all what it first appears to be.

At first, Caroline convinces herself that the spooky setting is unimportant, since she’s there to do a job as professionally and competently as possible. Throughout, the narrative touches on Caroline’s guilt, raising the broader issue of professional detachment versus emotional involvement in taking care of the terminally ill.

The mansion and the strange couple who reside in it are rife with secrets. Seemingly forgotten, the room holds an intriguing mix of antiques, mirrors that had oddly banished from the rooms below, and other artifacts that are apparently connected to the practice of Hoodoo, a strange kind of folk magic that conflicts directly with Caroline’s common sense and pragmatic way of thinking.

It’s to the credit of writer Ehren Kruger, who had penned “The Ring,” and director Softley that their film gathers enough details along the way to have an accumulative power. Indeed, gradually, small instances of the unseen and unexplainable begin to occur.

Deep in the marshes and bayous of Southern Louisiana, a little-known culture of strange rites and rituals has existed for generations. The magic called Hoodoo, not to be confused with the more common Voodoo, is essentially an American system of folk-magic beliefs, a more secular system that incorporates witchcraft, root work, spells, potions, and conjurations. Sill practiced in the bayou areas, it’s utilized for healing and controlling good (or bad) luck.

For those secure in their skepticism, these practices are easily dismissed as colorful superstitions, borne from influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and Spain. But for those who cross the dark threshold into belief, the forces of good and evil are tangible, powerful, and deadly. Once one believes, everything one fears becomes real.

The house, the scene of the crime, is a claustrophobic space, within which desires and tensions are exacerbated. The domestic space is filled with secrets, fears, rivalries, uncontrollable emotions, and finally murderous attacks. The more Caroline explores, the deeper she’s drawn into a dark mystery in the attic towards a terrifying and sinister legacy that threatens to take vengeance on anyone who comes to believe in its power.

Soon, the strong and secure Caroline begins to question her own convictions and to doubt her basic beliefs. Is she going mad Has she crossed the threshold to where beliefs become deadly reality In due time, the film also questions us, the viewers, whether or not we are in fact seeing a ghost story at all.

Softley knows that the trick of a good horror film is to mislead the viewer by withholding information, and keeping the source of evil off-screen for as long as possible. It’s therefore too bad that in the story’s latter parts, he resorts to using every clich in the horror book: power outage, rainstorms, bizarre sounds, swinging doors, and so on.

When Caroline decides that Ben needs to be rescued from his wife’s clutches, she drags him out of the house, in the midst of a storm. In this and other scenes, “Skeleton Key” becomes just a routine horror thriller. Fortunately, there are a number of plot twists in the last reel, and the ending, while cynical to a fault, deviates from what horror aficionados would expect.

British born Softley, who previously directed the impressive “Wings of the Dove,” is obviously attracted to distinctly American Ghost stories, and to the South, particularly Louisiana, as a pure American melting pot milieu. “Skeleton Key” is a return to form for Softley after “K-Pax,” a pretentious meditation on the very nature of reality. The first part is grounded in recognizable reality, which is neither too Gothic nor overly stylized.

In all of his films, Softley has shown penchant for detail and atmosphere, and here he suffuses his tale with tension and dread, making full use of the authenticity and flavor that’s unique to the area. In evoking a particular sense of place, New Orleans and the famous 24-mile Huey Long Bridge, he is assisted by Dan Mindel, the brilliant cinematographer who has shot some of the Riddley brothers most stylish films, such as “Spy Games” and “Enemy of the State.”

Psychological horror deals with perceptions, with what we imagine and what we believe to be happening. For those who care to look for deeper issues, the film talks about the painful process of aging, the role of family traditions, burdens of the past, and so on.

The camera stays close to Hudson, following and tracking every single move of hers, and occasionally caressing her with erotic views while she showers or sleeps in her sexy underwear. Not being as pretty and as glamorous as her mother, Goldie Hawn, helps Hudson play “Every woman” roles more credibly; it’s easy for viewers to identify with her, go with her on the spooky journey. Appearing more confident and mature, Hudson shows range beyond the lighthearted fare she’s excelled before (“Almost Famous,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”).

Also good is Peter Sarsgaard, as the effable Southern estate lawyer, Luke Marshall, who works for the Devereaux, and one is never sure if he’s being ingenuous with Caroline and whose side is he on. Is he a non-believer or believer Hurt is entrusted with the toughest role since is character is confined to a wheelchair and is mute; there’s good rapport through gestures and looks between him and Hudson. As Caroline’s roommate, Joy Bryant stands in for the audience, the one who asks the anticipated questions and keeps warning, “Don’t go into that room.”