Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Review: The Skeleton Key (2005)

The Skeleton Key
105 minutes

By Scott Mendelson

If what you crave is a near masterpiece of a horror film with incredibly rich, vibrant characters, sympathetic leads, realistic environments, top-notch writing, stellar acting from an all-star cast, and a complete sense of dread created not by cheap scare effects, but by your deep and sympathetic concern for the major characters and the real world they inhabit, well, too bad, because Dark Water probably isn't playing at your local theater anymore. However, if what you crave is a flawed, but potent scare fest, full of brutal shocks, horrific violence, and the understanding that ghastly special effects aren't quite as scary as watching the real-life horrors of a sympathetic family coming unhinged? Well, The Amityville Horror arrives on video October 4th. But what if you crave a less overwhelming experience? How about a goofy popcorn thriller, with a veteran master of terror at the top of his game, with a delightfully heinous villain, sympathetic heroes in peril, and exciting set pieces that will have you yelling at the screen or giggling and squirming in your seat? Wes Craven's Red Eye comes out next weekend. Alas, the film we're discussing today is The Skeleton Key.

The plot, as much as I'm going to reveal: Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson, completely acceptable in her first purely dramatic role) is a 25 year old hospice worker who is turned off by the cold, clinical manner in which forgotten seniors are hustled off to death's door, forgotten and alone. Still guilt-ridden over not being there when her father died prematurely from disease, she decides to accept a full time position as a live-in nurse in the middle of the Louisiana swamp. There lives Ben (John Hurt), crippled by a stroke and months away from death, and his wife, Violet (Gina Rowlands, having fun with the cliches of southern gothic horror). For $1,000 a week, Caroline will attend to Ben's medical needs and make sure he's comfortable in the final days of his life. But something is amiss. What is in that room in the attic that the master key won't open? What is the history of this mysterious house? Why is Ben seemingly afraid of Violet? And what does it all have to do with the locals' Hoodoo rituals?

I won't reveal the answers to those questions, but really, the whole film is a build up 'the big answers'. And, since there is little to take up our time while we wait (a subplot or more eccentric locals would be nice), we simply sit there, not quite bored, but not fully involved, and certainly not scared (it is telling that the most disturbing visual elicited not a single gasp from a packed audience). The problem is that it's obvious that the picture is attempting to cash in on the popularity of The Ring (but, one presumes, not its sequel, written by the same writer of this film, which baldly ripped off Wes Craven's New Nightmare, without the good parts), but fails to truly stand on it's own.

And as a film about solving mysteries, one minor mystery is ruined by the wrongheaded casting of a major character actor/actress - who has mannerisms that render them as likely to be evil as the late JT Walsh or Alan Rickman - in a seemingly superfluous role. Of course, the Law of Unnecessary Characters dictates that actors are too expensive to have unneeded characters in a big budget movie. This is a common problem in mystery films, as well as procedural TV shows. 'Gee, our suspects are 'random plumber', 'random lawyer', and distinguished character actor Dylan Baker as the doctor. Quick, Monk, who's the killer?' Then we have the legendary John Hurt, in a role that literally requires him to be mute, bedridden, and wheelchair bound for 9/10 of the picture. I suppose that makes sense, since who would possibly want to take advantage of John Hurt's lush and unique vocal styling?

If it seems I'm digressing, it's because there isn't much to say about the film. I won't reveal the big plot details other than to say that they are both contrived (ask yourself at the end how much 'person A' had to do of their own accord to allow the story to unfold as it does), and inconsistent with the film's underlying themes (growing old, the neglect of the elderly, the difficulty of accepting the eventual death of a loved one). The picture looks authentic, it's well acted by all involved, and it's opening 10 minutes are downright terrific, as Caroline reads a story to a dying patient and is frustrated at the lack of attention being paid. But, there are far better horror/suspense pictures out right now, and whether you wait for video on Dark Water and Amityville Horror, or you see Red Eye next weekend, or even track down a little seen golden oldie like Candyman, Copycat, or Frailty (easily the best horror film of this decade), there is no real reason to see The Skeleton Key this weekend unless you're a fan of the low-key PG-13 suspense genre who desperately needs their fix.

The Skeleton Key is not a terrible movie, and in some ways it's completely acceptable. But in the end, it depends too much on contrivance, and it's just not accomplished enough or scary enough or moving enough to make it worthwhile. Do yourself a favor and see if the obscenely good Dark Water is playing at any second run theatres in your area. The Skeleton Key is little more than skin and bones. Grade: C

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails