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Published July 29th, 2005 | by Paul Greenwood

The Skeleton Key Review

Classification: 15 Director: Iain Softley Rating: 3/5

July would appear to be the new October, judging by the number of horror movies released this month. Even if you stretch the definition and count the miserable Dark Water, this and Shallow Ground make four for the month – none of which detracts from the fact that if you’re going to see any of them, make sure it’s The Descent.

But back to The Skeleton Key, where Hudson plays Caroline, a nurse who has become disillusioned with a medical profession that she views more as a business than a health service. She applies for a position as a live-in home carer, and arrives at a rundown mansion in the Louisiana swamps where Violet (Rowlands) needs help with her husband Ben (Hurt). Ben is almost completely paralysed and unable to speak following a stroke and Caroline is there to help him die, something she feels she has to do to ease her guilt over not being able to care for her own recently deceased father.

Violet gives her a skeleton key that will open every door in the house and, between the creaky old place and the hoodoo that permeates the bayou, it’s not long before Caroline is convinced that not only is there more to Ben’s illness than meets the eye, but that the answer lies in one of the house’s many rooms. But why does the skeleton key not open a door in the attic? Why are there no mirrors in the house? And why does Peter Sarsgaard not appear in the trailer?

It’s probably damning with faint praise, but it has to be said that Skeleton Key is nowhere near as bad as I was expecting it to be. Hopes couldn’t have been high going in, armed with the knowledge that writer Ehren Kruger has already soiled our screens this year with the atrocious Ring Two, not to mention the idiotic Scream 3 (watch it on telly on Sunday night, you’ll see what I mean). But he’s managed to create an old fashioned ghost story with an intriguing and reasonably original plot that, while entertaining enough, is far from a classic.

That it ultimately doesn’t fully succeed is unfortunately more down to the direction than the writing. Softley succumbs to the same affliction that blights so many directors of modern horror – he fails to make an old dark house spooky. There should be menace lurking in every corner of the frame, but Softley is in too much of a hurry to get to the next piece of the puzzle instead of lingering in the shadows whenever Caroline is exploring the house. Which is a shame, because he’s in no rush elsewhere, with lots of nicely structured scenes between Caroline and Violet that help create a textured relationship as well as a genuine element of mystery. Part of this mystery is revealed fairly early on, and it’s not much of a leap from there to where it’s all headed, but the climax is satisfying and that’s half the battle.

Hudson has been drifting away a little in the last couple of years, but here she reminds us of why she made such an impact in the first place. She’s perky and feisty and able to hold her own against the imperious Rowlands, who invests her doughty southern lady with spirit and guile in even the smallest gesture. Hurt is totally wasted in a thankless, wordless role, but he does a nice line in being able to lie still with his mouth open.

The Skeleton Key is a marked improvement on some of the incredibly dumb American horrors of late, with an emphasis on story and atmosphere and barely a special effect in sight . It’s watchable, but with a little more conviction on the thrill front, it could have been a cracker.

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