The Skeleton Key
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Hospice-care nurse Caroline Ellis is haunted by the fact that, because of family tensions, she was not around to comfort her father when he died. She's been making up for that transgression ever since, selflessly giving herself to the dying. That's how she winds up at the house of Violet and Ben Devereaux. (And what a house it is—a creepy, decrepit antebellum mansion in the middle of the Louisiana bayou.) Ben has suffered a stroke, and Violet and her lawyer, Luke, hire Caroline to take care of him as he dies. In her spare time, Caroline takes to exploring the huge house using a skeleton key that opens every door in the house—except a mysterious small door she finds hidden behind the fireplace in the attic. Coincidentally, Ben had suffered his stroke while in the attic.
After more exploring of the house and investigating its previous occupants, Caroline becomes convinced that all is not as it seems to be—with the house, with Violet and especially with Ben. Add to that other mysterious goings-on, throw in a healthy dose of hoodoo and mix with dim lighting, creepy atmospherics and plenty of nighttime thunderstorms, and you have yet another movie enamored with all things dark and supernatural.
Caroline has a strong sense of duty in comforting the dying. "I get to help someone" is her explanation for taking on the difficult task of caring for Ben. That sense of duty also leads her to put herself in danger to care for him. Her friend, Jill, also is willing to go the extra mile to help Caroline.
In a backdoor way, the story proves the point that there's no such thing as merely dabbling in the occult. Spiritually dark practices are real and something to stay far, far away from, no matter how good your intentions might be.
The story revolves around the practice of hoodoo (not voodoo). As one character explains, "Voodoo is a religion. Hoodoo is folk magic. God doesn't have much to do with it." She adds, "It's pretty harmless. It can't hurt you if you don't believe in it." Ah, but there's the rub. Caroline learns the hard way that it doesn't take too much to get one to "believe."
A lot of occult imagery is featured as Caroline tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. She finds a book containing strange drawings and incantations. A recording of a hoodoo ritual contains the lines, "Take me out of darkness, please, Lord. From the devil's house, take me." A line of brick dust across a door's threshold is said to keep out evildoers. A character from the past is referred to as a "conjure man," and, during a flashback sequence, he and others are shown in a trance as they perform a hoodoo ritual. Caroline investigates potions and other hoodoo paraphernalia, and she performs hoodoo rituals. When she does a healing ceremony for Ben, she doesn't believe it's true but thinks Ben does. So, according to the mythology, "It doesn't matter if it's not real. It's real to him."
Violet has removed all the mirrors from her house because, she claims, you can see ghosts in mirrors. "Maybe all houses have spirits," she explains. "We don't see them until we believe we can." She's pretty open-minded about having ghosts around, though: "Say what you will about spirits, but I've always thought we could learn from them." Violet asks Caroline, "You religious at all?" to which Caroline responds, "I try to keep an open mind." Luke later says, "My family is superstitious, too. We're called Baptists."
Caroline strips down to skimpy panties before showering. Twice we see her bare back and partial side nudity. We later see her in panties and T-shirt while sleeping. She favors low-cut shirts and low-slung pants.
During a flashback sequence two housekeepers are hauled out of the house and lynched from a nearby tree. (We see the rope being pulled taut around their necks.) As they hang kicking from the tree, they're set afire. A woman chases Caroline and fires a shotgun at her several times. Caroline rams her car into a gate in an attempt to escape. She also kicks a man in the face. Two people wrestle over gardening shears. A woman falls over a railing and down several flights of stairs, and we see a broken bone protruding through mangled flesh. A man attempts to strangle Caroline with a phone cord. Ben falls off the porch roof. During a hoodoo ceremony, Caroline deliberately cuts her own hand to draw blood.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Four s-words. "A--," "h---" and "d--n" are used a handful of times. Caroline is called a "b--ch" and a "whore." God and Jesus' names are misused a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Violet says, "I smoke a lot and enjoy it," and indeed she lights up frequently throughout the film. A few other characters also smoke. Two scenes are set in a nightclub with patrons drinking beer or other alcoholic beverages. A flashback shows people drinking at a party, and the patrons are said to be "all full of brandy."
Ben must be administered medicine several times a day. Caroline drugs Violet by pouring something into her tea.
Other Negative Elements
Caroline has a grotesque nightmare in which her eyes and mouth are sewn shut like a shrunken head's.
The Skeleton Key is an atmospheric film that relies heavily on Southern Gothic conventions: creepy mansion, ancient live-oak trees dripping Spanish moss, murky bayous and a Northerner who has no idea what she's just walked into. It also relies on hoary spook-movie clichés, like why doesn't anyone turn on a light when she walks into a dark room!?
Written by Ehren Kruger, who also wrote The Ring, The Ring Two and The Brothers Grimm, this film can't decide if it wants to be a supernatural thriller or a murder mystery. In the end, it tries to be both, relying on a twist ending that will have audiences feeling like they've just seen a poor rip-off of The Sixth Sense.
It also relies on a weird metaphysical outlook: Something is not real unless you believe it's real. Try walking in front of a moving bus with such a worldview and you'll discover how well that notion holds up. Of course, a spiritually dark world exists whether or not we choose to believe it, but you don't need to wade through the spiritual confusion, violence and foul language of The Skeleton Key to learn that. Just read Ephesians 6:12.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Kate Hudson as Caroline Ellis; Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux; John Hurt as Ben Devereaux; Peter Sarsgaard as Luke; Joy Bryant as Jill