The Skeleton Key is a decent effort in supernatural horror, with an ending that is a shocker. There are a few flaws with The Skeleton Key (mostly regarding the atmosphere) but for a tame horror, it manages to surpass all expectations.
The Skeleton Key focuses on Caroline, who after becoming despondent when a dead patient’s belongings are easily cast aside by both the nursing home and the patient’s family. Seeking to do some more meaningful work, she applies for a job working with an individual patient. In the middle of nowhere, she starts to look after the terminal and paralyzed patient. The wife of the patient, Violet, is none too happy with this new nurse. But convinced by her lawyer, Luke, she tolerates Caroline.
Given a skeleton key to the whole house, she is curious about a locked door that holds remnants of the former owners and its horrific past. Violet is not exactly pleased with Caroline’s meddling and acts hostile towards her. With unusual events happening around her patient and the wife’s odd behaviour, Caroline soon starts to suspect there is more than meets the eye with Violet and her new patient.
What works about The Skeleton Key, they play on the mystery of the house. There are not many jump scares in this, but just an omnipresent feeling of something that is about to happen. It doesn’t manage to have the same profound effect as The Empty Man, but enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen. Several things are vying for our attention in this, which keeps the pace up while the mystery is slowly unravelled.
On one hand, we have the removal of mirrors that is aggressively important to Violet. Mirrors are a common prop in horror films, so this immediately tweaks on your horror radar. Then there is the mysterious attic room, with its odd things in jars, old documents and ritual paraphernalia. Then there is the patient that seemingly paralyzed, manages to crawl his way out of his bedroom window. All set against the backdrop of a house in a swamp, that was the place of lynching and has a hoodoo past.
Kate Hudson surprisingly carries most of this movie on her back, considering I have always associated Hudson with comedies etc. I always find that someone is a really good actor if you forget about their celebrity whilst watching them. And for The Skeleton Key, that was totally applicable to Hudson. But I found the writing throughout to not be up to par with the talent in this.
Though we know some of the motivations for Hudson’s character, Caroline, there is not enough to feel an emotional connection. A few random tidbits are thrown in but seem more like afterthoughts. With the shocking twist, if they had helped establish the character beyond a caring nurse, it could have been even more impactful. Horror is at its best when emotion is high, and for The Skeleton Key, it felt middling.
There can be nothing to fault with the acting throughout this, as the other actors all did amazing work with what they were given. John Hurt was showing us his chops, displaying so much with pleading eyes, that words were almost not needed. And Gena Rowlands as the possessive wife was fantastic, riding the line between concerned wife and something more dubious. It is the actors’ talent that makes it a shame that the story was a bit lacklustre in places.
In terms of horror visuals, however, it is pretty tame. As a supernatural movie, it did not need jumpscares, but it did need a spooky atmosphere. Though we have a tragic past, hoodoo and shadows in mirrors, it felt like they failed to capitalise on it. Even the location of a spooky house in the swamps seemed rich for spookiness all over but it never really goes anywhere. Sometimes it comes close, but the director felt very restrained in their approach as if not wanting to risk failure.
The Skeleton Key is still an enjoyable movie that is worth the 1hr 44mins running time. Even though it has some minor flaws, the ending will make up for that in spades. The final showdown as such contains all the tension that the preceding scenes almost managed to grasp.
With 45 minutes of Caroline trying to help her patient and fight to survive, the rest of the movie can be forgiven for its sometimes less than stellar horror atmosphere. Hollywood can be utterly disappointing in its horror offerings, but this manages to be one of the few that does not follow the prescribed formula.
The Skeleton Key is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.