Dir: Iain Softley. US.2005. 104mins.
Iain Softley'sLouisiana-set The Skeleton Key is a horror film which does not alwaysseem to know which doors it is trying to unlock. The film is at once apsychological chiller in similar vein to Amenabar's The Others, a ratheroverwrought and inadvertently comic slice of Southern Gothic, and a drama aboutdemonic possession.
It is handsomely crafted,features a strong cast, plenty of bluesy music and some very effectiveset-pieces, and yet the nagging suspicion remains that, underneath thetrappings, this is really just another creaky haunted house yarn. In adifferent era, B-movie meister William Castle might have made it with afraction of the fuss.
Given the current vogue forhorror, Universal can expect to do solid business with fright-addicted teenaudiences (it opens in the UK and Spain on July 29 in the US on August 12), butit is hard to see The Skeleton Key developing into a breakthrough hit onthe scale of The Ring (with whom it shares a writer in Ehren Kruger).
While Iain Softley knows howto crank up the tension, audiences here are likely to feel a little confused bythe number of different directions in which the film pulls.
Kate Hudson is the doughtyheroine, Caroline, who agrees to take a job as a carer in a decaying Southernmansion house. Her patient is the bed-bound, seemingly catatonic stroke victimBen (John Hurt). All the other nurses have quit, either because they're scaredor can't abide Ben's overbearing wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands.) Caroline is madeof sterner stuff. Besides, she is still torn with guilt about not being withher own father when he passed away. It helps, too, that she takes a shine toViolet's sleek and handsome family lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard.)
Production design isluxuriantly detailed. This is the Deep South as portrayed in Midnight In TheGarden Of Good And Evil, with nature growing wild, thunderstorms never faraway, and the locals clinging to an old world civility that can't quite hidethe history of racism and injustice in their backyard. In a jerky flashbacksequence, we learn just why the house has no mirrors. There is a legacy here oflynchings and satanic worship. The clue to all the evil is in the attic where(sure enough) Caroline soon finds herself drawn.
As he tries to stoke up theatmosphere, Softley makes effective use of faded black and white photographsand ancient gramophone records containing curses. The camera is forever on themove, prowling along the corridors and creaky staircases of the house. We'reconstantly being reminded that the evil can only affect those who believe inits powers. At first, Caroline is sceptical, but as she is exposed to more andmore southern mumbo-jumbo, she begins to waver.
The problem is that a filmthat begins rooted in psychology and fear of death grows ever morepreposterous. With its scenes of hastily drawn pentagrams and mumbledinvocations, the film even seems to be making passing nods to the old Hammerclassic, The Devil Rides Out. As he showed in the underrated K-Paxand in Backbeat, Softley is a skilled actors' director. Here, he has aformidable cast at his disposal, but they're all playing one-dimensional roles.There is something inherently perverse about casting an actor with asdistinctive a voice as John Hurt in a role in which he barely utters a word andin asking the estimable Gena Rowlands to play a character who would seemfar-fetched in even the most lurid pantomime.
The film-makers themselvesdon't seem sure about how seriously they should be taking their material. Wethus have certain sequences played in deadly earnest and others that teeter onthe edge of B-horror movie camp. The ending, though ingenious and potentiallyopening the way for sequels, risks trivialising and undermining what has gonebefore.
Softley's craftsmanship isnot in doubt, but his storytelling instincts are. The best horror films, eventhose that are tongue in cheek, have a sense of absolute conviction. That issomething The Skeleton Key ultimately lacks.
Double Feature Films