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The Skeleton Key dupes me into believing

by Glen Baity

Confession time: whenever I see a TV spot like the one currently running for The Skeleton Key, and it includes a phrase like ‘“don’t let anyone spoil the shocking ending to the most terrifying film of the summer,’” I am of two minds. First I know, almost without exception, that the movie will suck. Hard. Second, I know I have to see it. Why? Because I’m gullible. Being the only person in America who didn’t see the ending of The Village coming, I’m what carnival barkers might call ‘an easy mark’ ‘— I’m a rube, a pushover, a fool willingly parted from his money. When I walked into The Skeleton Key, my rational mind wasn’t expecting greatness, but another, sappier side of me sat down in the theater begging: ‘“Please, Mr. Swill Merchant, you can have my eight dollars, just tell me what happens to Kate Hudson!’”

Okay, so I get into movies free. But you get the picture: it’s just something about me ‘— I gotta know what happens. If I wanted to be dishonest, I’d say that I’m merely curious about what someone’s idea of a ‘shocking’ ending is ‘— since 1997, of course, it’s been ‘he was dead the whole movie.’ But the truth of the matter is, I’m holding out hope that I’ll beat the odds and see something really extraordinary, something new and jaw-dropping, a twist that makes The Usual Suspects look like Maid in Manhattan. I always harbor my foolish hopes, as ridiculous as they sound. This, dear reader, is what Pollyanna would look like with a goatee.

In The Skeleton Key, Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, a good-hearted New Orleans hospice worker. Fed up with the revolving-door treatment her patients receive at her end-of-life care center, she takes a job as a live-in aid on the spookiest estate in the Louisiana bayou. Her patient is Ben Devereaux, seemingly the victim of a stroke that has left him immobile. But like most things in this film, it isn’t what it appears to be on the surface. Similarly deceptive is Ben’s wife (Gena Rowlands), whose thinly masked bad intentions form the basis of the film’s convoluted mystery.

Though The Skeleton Key ultimately loses its appeal as the big plot twists come to light, its beginning boasts above-average creepiness. Director Iain Softley lays on the atmosphere: every board of the Devereaux house creaks at the passing of human (and inhuman) feet; antique religious icons stare blankly from dark corners and mantles; and as you’d expect, the weather is always overcast in the daytime, pouring rain at night. It sounds thoroughly conventional on paper, but on screen it does the job. There are some chilling moments, terrific scenery, and the performances of both Hudson and Rowlands are convincing, if not immersing.

My real complaint with The Skeleton Key is that it does for Hoodoo what The Craft did for Wicca, taking a religious practice with a rich history and filtering out nearly everything interesting. It’s a shame, because the look and feel of the film are so eye-catching precisely because they draw on rural Louisiana’s uniquely diverse culture, but the film ends up exploiting it. Forget the complex African roots of the Hoodoo religion; ultimately it’s only a means for the characters to hurl hexes at one another like kids in a Pokemon card tournament. It cheapens what would have otherwise been a decent horror film. Some of this criticism is supposedly explained by the ending (which I won’t give away, heavens no, because it’s so shocking), but I just didn’t buy it.

There’s a cynical stripe in me that believes the old saw that all the good ideas have been used, and it’s really all about how cleverly a filmmaker dresses up his plagiarism. Bearing that in mind, I will say that the ending of The Skeleton Key isn’t immediately obvious, and it’s a little bit surprising, but I have seen it before (though in the interest of suspense, I won’t tell you where). Maybe that’s the fate of the modern ‘twist’ ending ‘— you’ll be interested not in finding out what’s going to happen, but discovering which earlier film it’s ‘— ahem ‘— ‘inspired’ by. By all means, see The Skeleton Key for a handful of good scares, but to expect something innovative would take a person of uncommon credulity. Like me.

That Glen Baity thinks he’s so damn smart. If I were you, I’d give him a piece of my mind. Why, I’d even e-mail him at egothelivingplanet

@excite.com and tell him exactly what I thought of him and his hoity-toity ‘credulity.’

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