The Skeleton Key (review)

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A Kind of Magic

It doesn’t work if you don’t believe. It’s the mindset that fuels the power of superstition, of placebos, of magic, of religion. It also fuels the power of movies, and in particular of horror movies: Can you let go your skepticism to a degree wherein you can fool yourself into buying — for an hour and a half or so, at least — the most outrageous conceits? You’re only looking for some temporary diversion, after all, not a cure for cancer or the eternal salvation of your soul. And yet it can be surprisingly hard, in the face of movie characters behaving stupidly even when confronted with clear indications to get the hell out of demonic harm’s way.
The Skeleton Key deals with such conundrums head on, in a way that films about paranormal hoo-hah rarely do, acknowledging the disconnect between supposedly rational characters and their apparent desire to get themselves killed in some nasty supernatural way… and between supposedly rational audiences and their desire to have the bejesus scared out of them by stuff they don’t really believe exists in the first place. Key launches itself — thunder a-boomin’, doors a-slammin’, spooks a-spookin’ — directly into an iconic, even clichéd horror-flick realm, and then pulls itself back into a place more considered, more deeply horrifying: a place where what we believe, what we really believe, is the only force with any power over us. After its own sneaky introduction of itself as a paint-by-numbers haunted-house theme-park ride, it stops itself short and says, No, wait: we’re gonna show you why you’re gonna be so unsettled in the end. Not to spoil your late-summer moviegoing fun, but there’s some remarkable psychological insight in this scary little movie.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t all utter nonsense, either… at least, that’s how it’ll feel, reassuringly, the next day. Oh, all the silly hoodoo about old mansions in the L’siana swamps, about noises in the attic and locked doors and a skeleton key that opens every mysterious portal in the house: it is to laugh, no? Stalwart, no-nonsense Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson: Le Divorce, Alex and Emma) thinks so, too, when she is hired by lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard: Kinsey, Garden State) to tend to the stroke-addled husband of his client, creepy old Southern dame Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands: Taking Lives, Paulie). Poor old Ben Devereaux (John Hurt: Hellboy, Dogville) can’t speak, can barely move — he’s on death’s doorstep, and Caroline comes to believe that perhaps Violet has somehow ushered him to this sorry place. Clearly, something is not right in this decrepit old rundown manse: the mirrors have all been removed from the 30-odd rooms of the house, for one, and odd is certainly a good term for them, particularly the one off the attic, which is full of–

Well, as with most films looking to give you a good fright, revealing too much about The Skeleton Key would spoil the fun for you. Suffice to say that a genuine horror — and a not so ancient one at that — rises up out the history of the South to fire all the weird mumbo-jumbo, and that would be reason enough, perhaps, to hail Key as the fulfillment of the promise we’ve been hearing screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring Two, Reindeer Games) has embodied for lo these many years, since his Arlington Road made a biggest splash than it deserved to. But what makes me finally deem Kruger No Longer Overrated is that Key ends up being, in a deliciously insidious way, a true seduction into the supernatural as only the best thrillers can manage. We, as the audience, derive half our fun from the movie by imagining that we’re way ahead of it, that we’ve got it all figured out. We know in our geeky little movie-fanatic hearts, for instance, that Luke must be more than what he seems, and not only because the slippery-intense Sarsgaard would not have been cast in the role if this were not the case. But those kinds of red-herrings-or-are-they? are but a sideshow in this sharp, artful script — a necessary and entertaining sideshow, but a sideshow nonetheless.

The brilliant — and truly beguiling — thing about Key is how it lures us into following Caroline along the psychological path she takes, tricks us into walking right in her footsteps, so that we, like her, don’t even realize until it’s too late how we’ve been bewitched. Her dismissal of anything outside of the plainly rational was so vital to letting us accept her as a character in the beginning of the film — of course she walks into spooky places unannounced, because there’s nothing to be afraid of: ghost and goblins and voodoo don’t really exist, even if some people act like they do. Hudson’s undeniable screen charm springs partly from her resilience, her determination, her groundedness. But as Caroline’s skepticism slowly erodes to the point where she begins to believe — and hence begins to be affected by those beliefs — ours has been too. If Carolina is stunned by how everything resolves itself, well, we are, too, mostly because we just didn’t expect our own surprise.

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