"The Skeleton Key" is the latest feature from "The Ring" screenwriter Ehren Kruger and, while the film doesn't reach the spooky heights of that film, writer Iain Softley ("Backbeat", "Hackers") and cinematographer Daniel Mindel ("Bourne Identity", "Spy Game") at least give the movie a pretty strong gothic atmosphere. One of the most haunting aspects of watching the film is looking at the New Orleans area locations and being reminded of how many lives were lost and how many historical homes and locations were either damaged or destroyed during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The film stars Kate Hudson as Caroline Ellis, a young woman whose latest job is to take care of Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), an older Southern man who fell ill after a stroke. It doesn't take long before Caroline raises the suspicions of Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), the man's irritable wife.
It's not long either before Caroline starts hearing things that go bump in the night. Although the character does seem a tad nosy, she starts looking around the house and picking up hints that not everything is as it seems. One night, Ben, despite his condition, even makes what appears to be an escape attempt out his window.
In her own sort of Nancy Drew way, Caroline starts finding out about "Hoodoo", the religion of voodoo, and thinks that - despite the fact she doesn't believe in it at first - it may actually the cause of Ben's illness, not a stroke. If it's true, then she has to try and save Ben before it's too late. The only person she has to talk to is Violet's lawyer, played in an unusually average effort (although, to his credit, there's not a whole lot to the character) by Peter Sarssgard.
The feature doesn't really go for the usual "boo!" scares, aside from a couple of moments in the beginning. Instead, it's more of a mystery, and one that works decently. There are a few too many plot holes at times, and the ending starts ramping up the volume and becoming a little over-the-top with everyone running this way and that after a relatively subdued opening 75 minutes.
Still, Kate Hudson's performance, while not terribly noteworthy, is certainly watchable and something of a return for the actress after some completely bland roles. Gena Rowlands is also fine as the sinister Violet. As for John Hurt, he gives a pretty fine performance for someone who doesn't really say or do very much throughout the movie. The film is fairly swiftly paced, as I was surprised when I realized the movie was almost over. The fairly surprising twist ending works fairly well, as well. Overall, certainly not a bad horror/mystery, but it just lacks the writing, character and freshness of something similar, like "The Others". Still, a very good cold or rainy day rental.
VIDEO: "The Skeleton Key" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen by Universal. Picture quality is generally excellent, as the image remained sharp and detailed throughout, save for some low-light moments and a couple of segments that appeared to be intentionally slightly soft.
A few instances of edge enhancement didn't take away from what was otherwise a pretty fault-free effort. No print flaws were spotted, and the image remained free of pixelation and print flaws. The film's rather subdued color palette looked great, with no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: "The Skeleton Key" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Despite the genre, the movie's sound design isn't quite as aggressive as most similar pictures. Still, there's definitely some moments of fun and enveloping surround use, as the rear speakers do provide some nice instances of ambience/environmental sounds/sound effects. Dialogue generally remains clear and easily understood, although some mumbled/softly spoken lines may require a volume boost.
EXTRAS: Director Iain Softley provides a thoughtful commentary track, discussing shooting on locations in New Orleans, characters, story issues and what attracted him to the project. The DVD also offers a series of short featurettes, including a short one with Hudson discussing a ghost story that happened to her years ago.
Other featurettes include a fairly short and rather promotional "making of", "Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo", "Blues in the Bayou", "Plantation Life", "Casting the Skeleton Key", "John Hurt's Story", "A House Called Felicity", "Gena's Love Spell" and "Recipe & Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo". Finally, director Iain Softley provides commentary for nearly 22-minutes of deleted scenes, some of which seem more like extensions of existing scenes.
Final Thoughts: "Skeleton Key" has some plot holes and the last quarter of the film (up to an ending that's pretty interesting) is a bit of a mess, but I thought the film was a pretty engaging mystery. Universal's DVD edition provides very good audio/video quality and a nice helping of extras. A good rental.