It's Hoodoo magic baby! And "The Skeleton Key" is not a horror film, but a supernatural thriller that limps along throughout much of the film and finally redeems itself in the closing moments of the picture. Under the guise of being a horror film, "The Skeleton Key" is a slow building thriller that combines a few jump frights with hints of the final outcome that makes this film one of those rare pictures that isn't very good the first time through, but is a far superior film the second time around. As I watched "The Skeleton Key," I kept hoping the film would step up and become either scary or begin to unleash the horror and plot that was slowly building. With only a few minutes left until the film's running time was reached, the payoff came in a big way and the ending of "The Skeleton Key" completely changed my mind and a film that I was not enjoying became so much better.
To save ruining the important plot twist that occurs before the final credits roll, I'll avoid telling much of the story featuring Kate Hudson, but provide a brief setup to the story and background on the main characters. Caroline (Kate Hudson) is a hospice worker who is fed up with the business-like treatment that the elderly are given in a Hospice center where she works. She is a young girl who cares about people and is abhorred by the way they are forgotten and discarded the moment they did. She takes a job working at an isolated plantation in the bayous of Louisiana. She is hired by the lady of the house, Violet (Gena Rowlands) and her lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard). Violet's husband Ben (John Hurt) has had a stroke while spending time in the attic and Violet needs help taking care of him.
Against her reservations, Violet hires Caroline on Luke's recommendation, but is worried that the girl will not be able to understand the house. Ben has been completely paralyzed and is unable to speak. Caroline is leery of Violet and finds concern on Ben's condition and is set on uneasy ground when Ben starts to show some recovery from the stroke and unusual happenings being occurring during the house. Caroline continues to care for Ben, but finds some resistance and unusual behavior from Violet. Luke becomes somebody for Caroline to talk to and she slowly uncovers some of the history and secrets that reside in the house and within a locked room that her skeleton key is unable to open in the attic.
John Hurt is especially good in his role as Ben. It isn't easy to play a catatonic stroke patient, but the veteran British actor brings about the strongest suspense in the film. His facial expressions and stares into nothingness are impressive. Rowlands, Sarsgaard and Hudson are all solid in their performances, but they aren't John Hurt. Much of the film is based upon interaction between the strong willed Caroline and the equally strong and stubborn Violet. Instead of focusing on creating individual suspenseful moments, "The Skeleton Key" builds into one final scene where everything is quickly explained and many of the seemingly uninteresting and unimportant bits of dialogue and happenings in the film quickly become relevant and interesting. I had not enjoyed "The Skeleton Key" for nearly its entire length, but the ending was quite well done. This isn't a horror film, but a suspenseful thriller with a payoff that bests anything M. Night Shyamalan has done.
"The Skeleton Key" is provided with a gritty and determined looking 2.35:1 VC-1/1080p transfer. The bayou and old plantations are never pretty things and the imagery and scenery are far from lovely in "The Skeleton Key." Thankfully, the HD-DVD transfer brings every ugly and dirty moment to the screen in beautiful detail. Bright colors are often drowned out by a larger sea of the drab, but when a pretty color is present, it is perfectly rendered. The dark color scheme and heavy use of shadows are delivered with good shadow delineation and strong black levels. Detail is strong throughout, even when the screen looks the murkiest. This is a moody film that never tries to be lovely in its visuals. The HD-DVD transfer is solid and aside from a few scenes where the extremely low lighting creates a flat looking picture, this is a top-notch transfer.
English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are the sounds du jour for this HD-DVD release. The soundtrack is just as moody as the film and is filled with the sounds of the bayou and the frightening emptiness of an old plantation home filled with hoodoo. The soundtrack is rather enveloping when the source material permits and a few swirling moments do occur in the rather creepy attic. The film's cinematic score jumps to life to help provide thrills and chills on a routine basis. The .1 LFE channel thumps a number of times during "The Skeleton Key" to help the things that go bump in the night feel all the more suspenseful. This is not an overly aggressive soundtrack, but it is a quite effective sounding release that perfectly suits the foreboding sense of danger that slowly builds throughout the film. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout the film and this is a very technically competent mix.
"The Skeleton Key" features a long laundry list of items. However, their running times are short and the overall quality of this long list is somewhat lacking. The most valuable of these value added items is the Audio Commentary with Director Iain Softley. The director does do a good bit of back patting and refers to many of his scenes as being classic examples of whatever it is he is talking about, but he provides a wealth of detail. Everything from Kate's rushing into shape after her pregnancy, to the work done by William Hurt is part of the commentary track, as well as additional information on voodoo/hoodoo and items seen in the film. Softley provides commentary for the Deleted Scenes (21:07) as well. The commentary is optional for the deleted scenes and many of these do build upon what was seen in the film, but nearly all of the dozen or so scenes are alternate or longer takes of existing scenes.
The making of documentary is comprised of separate vignettes. The first is the Behind the Door – Making The Skeleton Key (5:25). Featuring the cast and crew of the film, this is an EPK style presentation complete with dynamic music, graphics and talking heads interviews. Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo (4:15) is overly short and doesn't dive too much into the differences between the religion of voodoo and the magic of hoodoo. I would have loved for a much more involved and deeper supplement on this vignette that looked at one of the principle elements of the film. Recipe and Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo (3:21) was more gloss than substance, but was an entertaining look at the always tasty Gumbo. Too bad they blurred out many of the recipes brand names. Blues in the Bayou (6:09) quickly touches on the music of the region; jazz and blues.
The featurettes continue with Kate Hudson's Ghost Story (2:35). This overly short vignette was Kate discussing a ghost story she had when Goldie Hawn rented out an old house in London. Yawn. Plantation Life (3:34) is another supplement that would have been incredible if expanded to being more than a curious short. This discusses what really happened on these plantations. Casting The Skeleton Key (9:14) is one of the chunkiest bits of gumbo on the extras menu, but doesn't add a lot to the film, but looks at those that took part in the film. John Hurt's Story (3:30) is another forgettable part of the larger documentary that is more floss than substance but finds the talented actor sharing a little story as well. The forgettable A House Called Felicity (5:16) and Gena's Love Spell (1:20) round out the items of the making of documentary and discuss aspects of the film.
I was ready to pounce all over the boring and drab ‘horror' film "The Skeleton Key" until the final scene featured a surprising twist that I did not expect. That closing scene redefined the entire film and affected nearly every previous interaction, comment and scene. It was a brilliant closure that made watching the film during the commentary listening even more worthwhile as I figured out the weight and importance of some seemingly out of place dialogue lines from the film. It's not often that a film can redeem itself by having a solid ending. This is one of those rare occasions when exactly that happened. The HD-DVD transfer features a strong looking image of an ugly film; ugly because of the fact it takes place in a nasty old house and dark and foreboding bayous. The sound is quite good as well. The features are plentiful, but after the lengthy deleted scenes, they are quite short. This is a suspenseful thriller that will be tedious to sit through, but the payoff is worth it.