As a proud member of the unofficial Lifelong Horror Movie Buff fan club, I'd like to politely request that filmmakers finally retire the "Boo!" scare. Even if you have only a passing familiarity with the genre, you probably what I'm talking about -- it's that moment when the camera zooms in ultra-tightly on the film's hero/heroine, and the scary monster (or the obnoxious friend playing a practical joke) pops into the frame, for no reason other than to frighten the popcorn out of audience's laps. Sure, this tactic worked pretty well in all those '70s slasher movies, but by now it's become such a predictable staple of the genre that it's long since lost its power to shock or disturb the audience.
Perhaps that's why I enjoyed 'The Skeleton Key' more than I probably should have. To be sure, it's not a particularly new twist on the "voodoo" subgenre of horror flick, nor is it especially terrifying. But 'The Skeleton Key' refreshingly sticks to a retro, creepy-old-house vibe -- the kind that eschews cheap jump scares and gore for a solid, compelling mystery and genuinely intriguing characters.
In her first genre film, Kate Hudson stars as Caroline Ellis, an idealistic young health care practitioner hoping to make a career switch after years of estrangement from her father left him to die alone. So when she spots a classified ad for a hospice worker needed to take care of the dying Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), she jumps at the chance. Of course, Devereaux and his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) live in one of those sinister old gothic New Orleans mansions that only exist in the movies, and over time, the ominous clues begin to pile up: Violet seems just a bit too protective of the true nature of Ben's illness, while the house itself seems to be calling out to Caroline with supernatural revelations of its checkered past. It's enough to drive a realist as resolute as Caroline to question her own sanity.
With a plot like this, we're either in store for a really bad episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," or a fun little sleeper. Luckily, 'The Skeleton Key' is mostly the latter. Sure, the movie's "hoodoo" hook is pretty hoary, but to my great surprise, 'The Skeleton Key' didn't bug me with its phony-baloney new-age mysticism, nor its litany of other horror film cliches. In fact, the film may be effective precisely because it panders to our expectations of the genre.
By milking every last creaking door for all it's worth, writer Ehren ('The Ring,' 'Scream 3') Krueger and director Iain ('K-Pax') Softley craft a familiar tale that's as comfortable as a big warm blanket, making the now-requisite M. Night Shyamalan-worthy big reveal that much more satisfying. I won't divulge the film's secrets, but 'The Skeleton Key' is also one of the few recent Hollywood genre efforts to not cheat the audience or its character's of their deserved fate. All things considered, it may not reinvent the horror genre, but 'The Skeleton Key' is a smart, moody, and capable thriller that hits mostly right notes.
'The Skeleton Key' is a very good-looking movie, with a suitably vivid, gothic visual style that's drenched in atmosphere. Universal cooks up a quite lovely, 1080p/VC-1-encoded transfer that easily does the film justice, and certainly offers a noticeable upgrade over the (already fine) standard-def version.
Though it's probably fair to say that director Iain Softley is not a critical favorite (at least judging by the scores 'The Skeleton Key' and his other works have received over at Rotten Tomatoes), I've always thought he had a keen visual eye. 'The Skeleton Key' is no exception, with a very nice use of moody lighting and deep, rich colors. Hues here look lovely, from Kate Hudson's luminous fleshtones to the deep cyans and greens of the swampy New Orleans locations. Blacks are perfect, and contrast is robust. Detail is also generally excellent, with only the darkest of interiors sometimes looking a little flat. Compression artifacts are not a problem, and the print is spotless. 'The Skeleton Key' is certainly up there with the best new catalog releases I've seen from Universal on HD DVD.
Universal also serves up an effective, moody Dolby Digital-Plus (1.5mpbs) soundtrack. 'The Skeleton Key' is typical of a modern studio thriller, with a sound design that is aggressive and well supported by a superior, jangly score (by Ed Sheamur). I wouldn't describe it as demo-worthy, but it suits the material perfectly.
The track's highlight is the consistency with which it maintains a presence in the surrounds. The rears are almost always engaged with nice atmospheric bleeds, subtle cues of Sheamur's score, or the more obvious, loud discrete effects. 'The Skeleton Key' also stages a number of its big suspense sequences in exteriors, which are nicely helped by the sustained ambiance. The sense of realism and fullness to the track's dynamic range is also welcome -- the bluesy score sounds great at high volume, especially the warm mid-tones of the guitars, and the solid low bass for the rumbling "shock" audio stingers. Volume balance is also very good, with no dialogue lost or indecipherable (except for maybe Gena Rowland's somewhat dodgy southern accent).
As has become standard practice on Universal HD DVD releases, 'The Skeleton Key' includes all of the same standard-def extras as its counterpart DVD release. Sadly, also as usual, none of the features have been upgraded to HD-quality 1080p/i video.
The centerpiece of the set is the 10-part, 44-minute "documentary," which is really just a bunch of largely fluffy vignettes with only few memorable sequences. "Behind Locked Doors: Making of 'The Skeleton Key'" (9 min.) blandly kicks things off, with the usual breathless narration and on-set interviews with cast and crew (director Iain Softley, plus Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, Gena Rowlands).
The remaining segments all run about 2- to 4-minutes a pop. "Casting 'The Skeleton Key'" features more of the cast talking about what attracted them to a genre film, which according to Hudson, was a choice she'd long avoided due to the poor nature of most of the suspense flicks she had been offered. Unfortunately, the next three segments focusing on the cast are far worse: "Kate Hudson's Ghost Story," "John Hurt's Story" and "Gena's Love Spell" are all pretty throwaway. While Hudson and Hurt detail eerie happenings and character choices, "Love Spell" is totally silly, featuring an embarrassed Rowland reciting a poem.
Much better are the four contextual segments. "Blues in the Bayou" interviews some of the local blues musicians seen in the film, adding a strong and welcome element of authenticity to the proceedings; "A House Called Felicity" examines the big gothic house that served as the centerpiece of the film (and it is indeed a character in its own right); "Plantation Life" features Norman Marmillion and Stan Waguespack, owners of two New Orleans plantations, who discuss some of the (disturbing) historical realties that served as the basis for the movie's backstory; and finally, "Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo" is the best of the included vignettes boasting an interview with three voodoo priestesses and practitioners. These folks may be laughable to some, but they're certainly far more interesting than most of the bland EPK interviewees that pad out the rest of the extras.
The last featurette is a complete throwaway. "Recipe & Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo" features a local New Orleans musician teaching us how to cook the ultimate gumbo delight. What, was the ghost of Julia Child busy?
Next up are a collection of 16 Deleted Scenes, all featuring optional audio director's commentary. Alas, almost all are scene extensions and don't really shed any new light on the film's intriguing backstory. In total, the material runs 22 minutes and is presented in mediocre 480i video.
Rounding things out is easily the highlight of the disc, the audio commentary with director Iain Softley. Granted, this is as straightforward a director's track as you're likely to hear, but at least it's informative. After a slow start, Softley covers all the expected bases, from his initial involvement with the film, to some of the changes made to Krueger's script to better incorporate proper hoodoo customs (Softley certainly seemed to endeavor to make the film as "authentic" as possible), and of course the requisite fawning over the cast (particularly Hudson). All in all, Softley is a smart, engaging speaker, and seems sincere in his stated intentions to take a "classy" stab at the genre. Worth a listen if you really like the flick.
Sadly, there are no theatrical trailers included.
'The Skeleton Key' is a fun little thriller that's perfect for a rainy day home alone. The film itself is well shot and well acted, with an intriguing enough story. This HD DVD release from Universal is also very nice -- the transfer and soundtrack are quite good, and the extras are fair. If you like horror films about old dark houses, you could do far worse than 'The Skeleton Key.'