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When I heard about The Skeleton Key I was immediately worried that it was just another run-of-of-the-mill, hackneyed horror from Hollywood. It was, after all, written by the guy who allegedly 'wrote' The Ring–and since he doesn't have a Japanese name, what they mean is the guy who copied the original Japanese Ringu story and script to produce the US duplicate. After being put off from seeing this at the cinema, good things started to be spoken about the movie–perhaps nothing 'great' but still generally good reviews were coming through. So, is it any good?

Skeleton Key, The

Film


Caroline works in a hospital, caring for the dying. It is a torturous job, watching as people slowly fade away, waiting for them to take their last breath, but it gives her some purpose and she takes solace in that fact. When offered the chance to take her work to a home out in the Deep South countryside, where she will be paid a large sum of money to care exclusively for a fragile old man, she jumps at the chance to escape the bright lights and big city life. Upon arrival at the house in New Orleans, in the centre of a large plantation, she is initially given a cold greeting by her host Violet, the wife of the invalid man who is now too much of a burden for her. The husband is wheelchair-bound after a stroke, unable to speak, barely able to focus his eyes, but there is a look in them that makes Caroline feel for him, and convinces her to take up the job.

Violet gives her a key to the house, a key that will unlock all of the doors in the house–a skeleton key–but she finds one door in the gloomy attic that simply will not open, no matter how hard she tries. Of course, Caroline's curiosity gets the better of her and, despite the cautions of her best friend Jill or the estate's lawyer, Luke, she doesn't stop until she finds out what is behind the door. What she unlocks is a nightmare tale of dark magic, evil spells, curses and possession and as she travels further into the sinister world of witchdoctors she finds herself unable to stop until she finds the truth. However, the truth comes with a heavy price.

The Skeleton Key is a breath of fresh air in an industry which currently seems to be just churning out endless remakes and sequels (particularly in the horror genre). Despite the fact that Deep South New Orleans Voodoo has been done before (possibly most effectively in the superior Mickey Rourke/Robert De Niro horror/thriller Angel Heart) and the pretty young girl trapped in a spooky house thing is not exactly unusual, the overall feel of the movie is much more atmospheric than what I have come to expect out of Hollywood. Personally, the movie didn't particularly make me jump–but, then again, I don't tend to get my kicks out of horror movies that way. The evil omnipotence of The Shining, the paralysing simplicity of Ringu (the original Japanese Ring film), they're the kind of things that make an effective horror movie for me. And whilst The Skeleton Key is not in the same league of any of my horror favourites, it is certainly a step in the right direction, with a dark and brooding atmosphere that makes you feel uneasy and leaves you unsure of how safe things are in the world around you–at least for the rest of the night.

Skeleton Key, The
Kate Hudson is the latest in a long line of pretty young things who have recently stepped into the New Age horror limelight. Naomi Watts was effective in the solid but still unoriginal Ring remake and Jennifer Connelly has just remade Dark Water–both based on superior Japanese movies that are only a few years old. So it is quite nice that Kate Hudson has chosen to do something a little more original and a little more daring. Her track record indicates that we should have probably expected this from her. Never one to take the easy option, Hudson–daughter of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell–has her mother's cute looks (though she lacks that Goldie spark) and her father's screen-grabbing charisma. With her stunning turn in Almost Famous proving her worth at an early age, she has always picked her productions carefully, adding her own inspiration and original touch to everything she has take on (although admittedly she bordered on being stereotyped in romantic comedy-dramas for a while) and this movie is no exception.

She is ably supported by a line of superb character actors, from John Hurt ( Alien, Hellboy) as the stroke-paralysed old man, to Gena Rowlands ( Taking Lives) as the cold, aloof wife. Peter Sarsgaard ( Garden State) is suitably slimy as the estate lawyer and Joy Bryant ( Honey) is perfect as Caroline’s warm best friend. All in all, the British director Iain Softley ( K-Pax) has done a decent job with this novel little addition to a genre burgeoning with uninspired, unoriginal tosh and whilst some may feel that they get neither the thrills nor the gore that they were looking for, others like me with appreciate the dark and mysterious atmosphere that the movie surrounds you in, captivating you right up until the very end.

Video


The Skeleton Key is presented with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer that looks pretty good. There is a slightly misty feel to the whole production which implies softness, but I never felt it detracting from my viewing pleasure–on the contrary, it seemed to go with the mood of the movie. Detail is relatively good, with no sign of edge enhancement and negligible grain. The colour scheme is restricted to fairly muted, faded colours but again this is totally in line with the content. Blacks are pretty solid and assist in the shocks and the transfer has no sign of print damage.

Audio


We get a powerful Dolby Digital 5.1 track that pushes all of the right buttons. The dialogue is presented clearly from the frontal array but the real penetration comes from the effects and the boisterous score. This movie is simply packed with everything from ambient observations like garden insects, birds chirping and doors creaking to the more 'explosive' noises of crashing, smashing and screaming. Musically, the soundtrack has a few song tracks that offer up some slightly incongruous bass beats, but the score itself is reasonably well-suited to the progressively tense enterprise. Overall it is a thoroughly absorbing mix.

Skeleton Key, The

Extras


Even though it is only a single disc, we get almost every conceivable extra you would want with this release. But are any of them any good?

First up there is an audio commentary with the director Iain Softley. He does not sound very comfortable recording the track, sounding a little contrived (and pre-rehearsed) in the way he talks, but it is still occasionally interesting to hear about the whys and hows of the production (why he did it and how he did it). His overly verbose way of talking is not particularly conducive to the near hour-and-a-half runtime, but he does offer a few insights into the underlying themes and poignant thought-provoking aspects of the script and story. If you are interested in New Orleans' set movies - in particular this one–then this commentary will be particularly worth listening to.

There are twenty-two minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary by the director. Since there are about sixteen scenes, each of them run at little over a minute in length and none of them particularly add to the story, often offering slightly different ideas and subtle tweaks. We get an alternate opening and ending, some minor extra scare set-ups but nothing worth going out of your way to watch (apart from perhaps the uncut version of the lynching scene). The optional commentary by the director does not really explain a great deal about the excised scenes, being full of pauses and silence and giving little in the way of reasons by they were cut.

'Behind the Locked Door' is a making-of documentary that runs at barely five minutes in length, offering very little detail about the production, but still managing to cram in a few glimpses of behind the scenes footage, concept art and interview snippets (including John Hurt, Kate Hudson and most of the other major cast and crew). Shot in an annoying MTV-style, it still manages to somehow find time to show clips from the main movie itself. There is little of value here, with more than half the time spent just praising the British director and nothing much explained about the background of this production.

The 'Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo' featurette is also quite short, running at four minutes in length and again adopting a frantic filming style that makes the proceedings quite confusing. We get very brief interviews with a few New Orleans Voodoo 'practitioners', who explain–very succinctly–what it is all about: it is a religion/spiritual path that is based on the balance between human beings and nature. There is nothing in this brief featurette that is going to convince you either way when it comes to this rather strange practice, but it is interesting hearing the origins of it, along with the confusion between Voodoo and Hoodoo, although they never really explain the differences. I'm afraid that 'Voodoo is a religion, Hoodoo is something totally different' just does not explain anything to me.

Skeleton Key, The
The 'Recipe and Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo' featurette is even shorter - three minutes - but we get the basics about making a gumbo (which actually does not look like it takes a great deal of skill).

The 'Blues in the Bayou' featurette runs at six minutes and has the music supervisor talking about different New Orleans bands, relating it to the contributions for the movie (including the nightclub scene). Annoyingly, despite its longer running time, there is very little revealed about the music and the featurette mainly involves clips from the bands’ tracks (which you would have heard from the main movie).

'Kate Hudson's Ghost Story' is a little over two minutes in length and is purportedly a true ghost story from the leading lady herself. I think she is confusing tripping over the ghostly body of the child who used to reside in her house with a distinct lack of spatial awareness but I could be wrong.

'Plantation Life' is a three minute look at Deep South plantations, talking briefly about the slaves who were 'employed' to run them, how much they were paid, how much it cost to 'free themselves' and where they mostly came from (Senegal). This is quite an interesting (if again, overly short) featurette.

'Casting the Skeleton Key' takes a nine-minute look at how they filled out the parts with several solid actors. The director pops up to talk about the cast and Kate Hudson, Joy Bryant, Peter Sarsgaard, Gena Rowlands and John Hurt all contribute. There is plenty of behind the scenes footage and b-roll, with them discussing the club scenes, the torrential rain shots, but also unfortunately talking about the things that you will learn by watching the movie anyway (character motivations etc.). Still, it is one of the better featurettes.

'John Hurt's Story' is not actually a personal story by him but instead a three-minute story about slaves that he reads out of a book. Hurt's voice is very interesting and he tells the quaint little story well, although it adds little to what most people already know about slavery.

The 'A House Called Felicity' featurette runs at five minutes in length and sees the production crew working to set up the house on location in New Orleans, talking about it being better to film there than in a studio and how they secured the property (I suspect large amounts of cash were thrown at the owners).

'Gena's Love Spell' us little over a minute in length and has Gena Rowlands reading out a magical love spell which involves a whole lot of wasted sugar and honey, but is a nice idea.

Finally we get trailers for the new Wes Craven thriller Red Eye (the trailer for which gives away far too much of what could have been a nice, surprising plot) and Peter Jackson's glamorous remake of King Kong.

Skeleton Key, The

Overall


The Skeleton Key is a refreshing new horror from an industry that has been churning out far too many remakes recently. Once again painting the Deep South and New Orleans as a haven for Voodoo witchcraft, it submerges us in this dark world of death and evil. Presentation-wise, the DVD is very good, with a suitably atmospheric transfer and a boisterous soundtrack, along with a multitude of so-so extras amongst which there is plenty to please both fans of the movie and those interested in learning a little more about Voodoo. This one definitely comes recommended rental and a worthy package to purchase if you find that you like the material.


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