You don’t have to be Southern to enjoy Southern Gothic. You don’t even have to be American. Sitting in the swankiest multiplex in downtown Mumbai, a coffee in your right place-holder and a box of caramel popcorn on your left, you can visit the deep South for an hour and a half. Heck, you can even stay awhile.
Skeleton Key doesn’t try to do too much, and what it does, it does damn well. That’s its greatest strength. It’s a little movie with a simple, one-shot idea that it explores from point A to point Z, and then wraps up neatly and effectively, with a shocker in the tail that would do a scorpion in Death Valley proud. There won’t be any sequels to this little atmospheric shocker, nor will there be any franchises, and that’s almost a relief in this age of over-produced, over-marketed, over-franchised movie-making. Just an hour and a half’s entertainment in the dark, and then you get to go home and maybe talk about that ending on the drive home.
Dripping wisterias, weeping willows, murky swamps with a layer of mist undulating, an old house on the Louisiana backwaters, with a creaking porch, rocking chair and, of course, an attic with a secret room that even the master skeleton key can’t open. Add to it all an old couple, Southern to the bone, eking out the last years of their lives.
Enter a young beautiful nurse to care for the old man, a tragic history that nobody wants to talk about, a little hoodoo magic, and you have the makings of a perfect 104-minute supernatural suspense thriller. Not a horror movie, unless you categorized What Lies Beneath as horror, with its quiet, building suspense and thumping shocks. No zombies lurching, no body organs spilling out, no buckets of gore splashing about…just quiet, scary-as-hell Southern Gothic.
The story’s simple enough: A young attractive nurse Carolyn who works at a hospice caring for the elderly dying during their last days wants something more than just an impersonal job where, after an old person dies, his bed is turned over in twenty minutes to make place for the next warm body and his personal effects are put in a box and dumped in the bin out back. She wants to work with someone who actually cares about the patient.
So she takes on a job in the bayou, caring for an old man who’s had a stroke recently that has left him completely paralysed. Or so says the old battle horse of a wife who runs her house and her husband in the old ‘Southern style’, and looks down on an ‘outsider’ whom she feels ‘won’t understand our ways, and won’t understand the house’.
The young New Orleans lawyer, straight out of a John Grisham novel, is persuasive enough to keep the young nurse on the job despite the grumbling old battle axe, and the old lady from getting too pesky, while flirting a bit with the young nurse himself.
Her friend in the city worries that she’s spending her best years with old dying people and that it’s changing her, but young nurse needs to work out her own emotional issues and guilt over not being around when her father died prematurely. ‘Nobody should have to die alone’ is her reason for sticking it out in the Louisiana swamps, and you admire her for it.
Just don’t admire her too much, or fall in love with her, because this is Southern Gothic. Where, in the best tradition of Carson McCullers, Greg Iles, and a whole bunch of Mississippi masters, old and new, everything does not always turn out well in the end, someone usually dies–or worse, and the good guys don’t win.
I won’t give away the barb in the tail of this film, in the event you haven’t caught it a local multiplex in your town yet. But I will tell you that it involves a terrible secret the house holds close to her wooden breast.
A secret involving two African-American servants with the typically turn-of-20-century Southern Gothic names of Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, who were lynched and burned in front of this very house for initiating the two young children of the house into the macabre rituals of hoodoo. (Not to be confused with hoodoo–and if you watch the film, it’ll tell you briefly what hoodoo is and how it differs from voodoo.)
And it also involves sacrifices–but, as the Gena Rowlands character says in the end, people always take it for granted that sacrifice involves killing someone. And that isn’t necessarily true.
I guess I could pick holes in Skeleton Key. It’s full of cliches–creaking staircases, sagging porches, shadows flitting about an old house, locked doors that clatter incessantly as if something behind them wants out, mist-laden swamps, the gothic staples of storm and thundershowers, a young defenseless (unarmed and naive) female protagonist…basically the whole waterworks.
But the said items are neatly arranged, and an genuine attempt is made to infuse originality into each one. Kate Hudson’s heroine has spunk and isn’t a dumb thriller victim rushing in blindly. She has a head on her shoulders, and her wits about her, and actually has a shot at getting away with her audacious plan in the second half of the movie. The only problem is, as she herself harps throughout, she ‘doesn’t believe in hoodoo’ and she’s trying to save the wrong victim. To say anything more, would be to give away the ending, and that’s the best part.
While all the acting is first-rate, the script is clever and well balanced, the direction expertly handled and with just the right mix of atmospherics and shocks, in my eyes, John Hurt stands out as the most brilliant turn out of all.
You’ll especially appreciate his performance _after_ you walk out of the theatre, once you know what the secret really is and who he really is, and I can guarantee that as you’re turning in for bed that night, you’ll be thinking of his haunted eyes, the way he thrashes when he’s shown a mirror, and what really haunts him. Hint: It’s not the house or even the ghosts within it. Poor guy.
For a film that doesn’t have a happy ending–just the opposite–and where you could argue that the good guys actually lose in the end, Skeleton Key nevertheless builds a solid suspenseful hour and a half of popcorn entertainment and delivers a whallop of a Southern sting in its last ten minutes that will haunt you more than most fx-riddled horror movies these days. Watch it and have yourself a Happy Halloween ahead of time!
Caroline: Kate Hudson
Violet: Gena Rowlands
Ben: John Hurt
Luke: Peter Sarsgaard
Jill: Joy Bryant
Papa Justify: Ronald McCall
Mama Cynthia: Maxine Barnett
Hallie: Fahnlohnee Harris
Bayou Woman: Marion Zinser
Universal presents a film directed by Iain Softley.
Written by Ehren Kruger.
Running time: 104 minutes.
Rated PG (for violence, disturing images, some partial nudity and thematic material).