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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » The Skeleton Key (HD DVD)
The Skeleton Key (HD DVD)
Universal // PG-13 // May 22, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 3, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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When a movie tosses out the phrase "supernatural thriller" on the flipside of its packaging as The Skeleton Key does, that's usually a sign that it just doesn't want to admit to being a horror movie. The Skeleton Key is one of the few where that label really is the best fit. The script is light on cheap jump scares, and its sole cat-and-mouse chase is saved for the climax. There's no trace of gore and, one flashback aside, not even a body count to speak of. The Skeleton Key instead leans on its gothic Southern atmosphere and the yellowed, scratchy, backroom remnants of bayou hoodoo to unsettle the audience. Though it's not a particularly remarkable thriller, The Skeleton Key is still a welcomed change of pace from the rapid fire editing, chugging electric guitars, jiggly twentysomethings, and stock slasher setpieces that usually pass for suspense these days.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) wasn't with her estranged father when he died, and she's been trying to make up for that as a hospice worker. Frustrated with the indifference and tunnel vision focus on the bottom line at an overly corporate nursing home, Caroline takes a job caring for Ben Deveraux (John Hurt), a gravely ill stroke victim with only a month or so left. The Deverauxs' isolated former plantation is inches from swampland, but it's fairly convenient for the prospective nursing school student and pays well enough. Ben's wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) doesn't take particularly well to Caroline at first, but her charming estate lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) explains that a hospice worker living in the house makes her husband's imminent death that much more real. Violet's hiding something, though, and Caroline is certain that it has something to do with a shuttered room in the attic -- the one door her skeleton key can't unlock. Cue an ominous tagline about how some doors weren't meant to be opened...

The Skeleton Key takes somewhat of a low-key approach, steering clear of any pulse-pounding chases or claustrophobic stalking. There's nothing overtly supernatural throughout the majority of the movie -- there can't be, seeing as how Caroline's disbelief in dark magics is a key plot point -- and those few moments that are don't rely on any CGI theatrics. The Skeleton Key even has the confidence to end on an unconventional note, downbeat and lacking the standard issue "one last scare!" coda. Its twist ending doesn't come out of nowhere and is hinted at throughout the movie. I have to admit that the exact twist caught me off-guard -- I thought I had it figured out but was looking for something else entirely -- and I found myself smirking when I gave The Skeleton Key a second look as seemingly benign lines of dialogue took on a completely different meaning.

It's just that at the end of the day, The Skeleton Key plays like an episode of Tales from the Crypt expanded to feature length, complete with gratuitous T&A (not that I'm complaining), clunky genre mainstays like the creepy blind woman there to dole out exposition, and a lack of any intense emotion. It seems as if screenwriter Ehren Kruger had a few great ideas and decided to lean on genre clichés to fill out the rest.

The film doesn't seem to have all that much confidence in the audience either. Fairly obvious plot points are repeatedly hammered home through clumsy dialogue, particularly as the movie draws to a close. At one point, Caroline is shown injecting sugar cubes with something or another, and a minute or two later over dinner, she keeps pestering Violet by asking why she's not plopping any sugar into her iced tea. She always uses sugar. Do it do it do it do it do it do it do it! Yeah, that's not a giveaway. There's a particularly embarrassing "fiddlesticks" in the last couple of minutes, I guess to clue in anyone who walked out of the room to make a sandwich as the big twist was unambiguously explained.

The Skeleton Key is perfectly adequate as a thriller. I wasn't ever bored. I didn't feel particularly insulted by the screenplay, even if it was by the guy who wrote Scream 3. The dank atmosphere of New Orleans' swampy underbelly compensates for some of the film's shortcomings, and it's impressive how much John Hurt can convey without uttering a word, but The Skeleton Key isn't a movie I have any burning desire to recommend or discuss. It's the type of movie I watch quietly and completely forget about ten minutes later. Better suited for a lazy Sunday on Cinemax-HD or a few clicks on Netflix.com.

Video: The Skeleton Key's 2.39:1 high definition video has a lightly filtered appearance to it, and although it's not excessive, this disc isn't as strikingly crisp or detailed as the best of Universal's HD DVDs to date. Its slight tinge of softness may be a factor of the stylized colors, but whatever the cause, the presentation is otherwise a strong effort that's devoid of any artifacting or particularly intrusive film grain. The visuals benefit greatly from cinematographer Dan Mindel's keen eye, and the cold, muted palette and the constant interplay between light and shadow look fantastic in high definition. With much of the film set at night and in a dark, cavernous plantation, it's necessary that the image hold up as remarkably well in low light as it does here. Not perfect but still above average.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio isn't as aggressive or enveloping as most horror/suspense soundtracks, placing discrete effects into the the surround channels somewhat sparingly considering its creaky plantation setting and reserving the subwoofer largely for the music and a few key stings. The film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, free of any clipping or distortion. Like The Skeleton Key itself, the mix is competent but not especially memorable. As is standard practice for Universal these days, the Spanish soundtrack and subtitles from the DVD have been dropped, although a French 5.1 track and subtitles in English and French remain intact.

Extras: The extras have been directly lifted from the 2005 DVD release, and none of them are in high definition or even in anamorphic widescreen.

Director Iain Softley contributes a thoughtful commentary track, touching on everything from the meticulous work that went into the film's sound design, using medical cameras to shoot through keyholes, why peacocks were such a mainstay on Southern plantations, and John Hurt's insistence on wearing a yellowed set of false teeth even though they're only visible in one scene. There's also something enormously entertaining about hearing the words "Bounce That Thang" spoken in a soft, proper British accent. Worth a listen.

The more than twenty minutes of deleted scenes promised on the packaging aren't quite what was advertised. They're brief extensions, mostly, spending more time with Caroline as she performs her official duties, a longer lynching sequence that was trimmed down slightly to sneak past the MPAA, and an additional tag to the ending. There are a couple of true deleted scenes in here, though, most notably Caroline wandering into a church service, but for the most part, this additional footage just quietly reiterates information already established elsewhere in the movie. Softley offers optional commentary for these scenes as well, briefly explaining about why they were trimmed.

The rest of the extras are a series of short, choppy, lightweight featurettes. Kudos to Universal for using the movie as a springboard and including extras that aren't just rote making-of pieces, but too many of them seem rushed. These include some comments from historians and actual practitioners about voodoo and hoodoo (4 min.), a spirited gumbo recipe (3 min.), and a short overview of the arduous lives of slaves on Southern plantations (3 and a half min.). Along these same lines, John Hurt reads an excerpt from an account of one slave (3 and a half min.), Gena Rowlands explains how true love is just a Mason jar and a popsicle stick away (1 min.), and Kate Hudson tells her own spooky ghost story (2 and a half min.).

Instead of piling the interviews and behind the scenes footage into one long making-of featurette, it's broken up into several chunks. That doesn't leave all that much for "Behind the Locked Door: The Making of The Skeleton Key" to say in its short five minute runtime, touching briefly on director Iain Softley and the inspiration behind the story. Other extras include a six minute featurette on the wide array of music that's so prominent in the film, a five minute look at the plantation used as The Skeleton Key's primary setting, and a fairly typical casting piece (9 min.).

Conclusion: The Skeleton Key tries to distinguish itself from the rest of the PG-13 horror brigade with an emphasis on Southern gothic imagery rather than splatter and WB starlets. It's an adequate but forgettable thriller, and The Skeleton Key is probably better left for a rental. Rent It.
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