For roughly the last 10 years, the horror film has been going through an identity crisis. The huge success of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978 led to a progression (or, more accurately, degression) of slasher films that came to dominate the genre through the 80s, becoming increasingly rote and derivative, eventually driving away all but the least discriminating filmgoers. With the 1996 release of Scream, the first postmodern slasher film, many considered the genre officially dead, though an occasional throwback still pops up now and then. (Witness the recent High Tension, which could be seen as the equivalent of the French New Wave’s reinterpretation of classic American gangster films, except that their movies didn’t suck.)
In the absence of Michael, Jason, and Freddy, Hollywood began to look for other ways to scare the bejeezus out of audiences. Did they try startlingly new, innovative directions? C’mon, this is Hollywood we’re talking about. They started making supernatural films of the type that had dominated the genre immediately prior to the slasher revolution, remaking films like The Haunting, 13 Ghosts, and Amityville Horror and adding sequels to elderly franchises like The Exorcist and Romero’s Dead series. Unsurprisingly, many of the best new horror films are remakes of foreign originals (such as The Ring, whose success spawned a slew of inferior Japanese remakes such as The Grudge and Dark Water) or are made in English by foreign filmmakers (such as Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others). As Hollywood has cast about in search of horror stories that would work, there’s one subgenre that’s remained largely untried: the Southern Gothic horror story. While there have been a few recent horror films set in the South, not since 1998’s Hush has there been one that’s really brought out all the Gothic tropes. Until now.
The Skeleton Key has it all — a spooky, decrepit plantation house, ghosts, hidden rooms, long-buried secrets, violent racism, arcane rituals, frequent thunderstorms, a mute victim, a drawling lawyer — you name it. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who also wrote Scream 3 and the Ring films) has ransacked the attic, dragged ‘em out, and put ‘em all in there. Kate Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, a New Orleans hospice worker disenchanted by the indifference of her fellows and looking for a change of pace. She answers an ad in the local paper (characters in a Southern Gothic do not advertise on craigslist) and finds herself enmeshed in a bayou family drama. Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) is an elderly man paralyzed by a stroke. His wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) is an ornery old cuss who’s distrustful of interlopers, particularly Yankees. She’s already run off several caregivers and ready is to send Caroline packing, but with some convincing from their estate lawyer, Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard), she relents and takes Caroline into their employ.
From the outset, Caroline senses that something is amiss. Violet insists that an outsider could never understand how she runs her house, and sure enough Caroline is confused by the total absence of mirrors and the strange noises she hears in the attic. The entire bayou country is foreign and uncomfortable to her. When she stops to buy gas at a roadside station, the main building is a ramshackle shack full of raw oysters, taxidermied alligator heads, and suspicious Creoles. Kruger’s script makes just enough of the fish-out-of-water scenario and moves on; the point isn’t belabored, and Hudson’s performance is right on. Caroline is a modern woman, a creature of reason and science who can’t make sense of the superstition and antiquated notions that surround her, but she’s not stupid and can adapt quickly. Gradually, she becomes more and more involved in the situation. It’s revealed that she lost her father suddenly, and when she realizes that there’s something amiss about Ben’s “stroke,” she develops a filial attachment to him that won’t allow her to abandon him, even when her continued presence in the house puts her into deepening danger.
Violet spends much of her time tending her large garden, giving Caroline ample opportunities to snoop around the decaying mansion, where she discovers evidence that the previous owners’ loyal servants were involved in Hoodoo, a sort of Creole black magic. This seems to connect to the absence of mirrors in the house and also to Violet’s reticence about her peculiar methods of running the house. Caroline begins to suspect Violet’s version of her husband’s accident, and she confides her suspicions to Luke, the only other person she knows in all of Terrebonne Parish. Rowlands, a veteran of over 40 features and a variety of television productions, plays Violet as the familiar tight-lipped, tight-assed Southern matron without ever veering into caricature. Her accent is a bit vague — but her character is supposed to be a Savannah transplant, so that’s taken care of — and it never goes over the top. Sarsgaard is nearly perfect, the sort of backwoods charmer that a frightened young woman like Caroline would instinctively trust. The Southern Gothic mode requires that each character has a secret, and sure enough, no one turns out to be quite who you thought they were.
Any movie so replete with genre staples is bound to be short on surprises, and, while The Skeleton Key isn’t wholly predictable, it’s not likely to shock many horror aficionados. There’s one nice, un-Hollywood twist (SPOILER WARNING: it’s similar to the surprise of Kruger’s early script for Arlington Road), but overall the filmmakers are satisfied with fulfilling expectations. As an inveterate horror buff, I was rarely really terrified by the proceedings, but the reactions of other audience members indicated that they were scared just fine. The script is clever and witty enough to get by, and the cute blonde heroine is smart and resourceful enough that the script never seems sexist. The Skeleton Key isn’t great, but it’s a faithful addition to a largely ignored genre, with performances that are better than they need to be. Faint praise perhaps, but when your other option at the multiplex is Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, it’s not much of a coin toss.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()