Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick: The Skeleton Key (2005)

Often movies fail to obtain a viewership worth any credibility, usually resulting in their being relegated to lesser value and they become buried within the discount bin at a variety of retailers.  Often this is a result of terrible advertising on the part of producers, a wrong label in terms of is genre category or simply not coming out at the proper time.  This seems to be a combination of factors when related The Skeleton Key, a film even I had dismissed, passing off a copy to by trade-in pile with little concern for every viewing it.  Thankfully, a glance at my stack of soon to be dismissed DVD's spurred my girlfriend to suggest revisiting the film as she thought I might enjoy it, despite my verbal dismissal.  Reluctantly I popped this film into the DVD player and within five minutes the sweeping cinematography and thriller oriented narrative had captured me and I found myself longing for more of this criminally underrated film.  The performances are spectacular and the story is somewhat predictable but, nonetheless, quite intense...also it does not hurt that the film is set in New Orleans, which for all intensive purposes may well lend to being of the creepiest places visually.  Think back to my discussion of Easy Rider and the drug trip sequence...this, of course, was filmed in the catacombs of New Orleans.  The film also manages to properly and earnestly incorporate voodoo and hoodoo into its narrative, which is easily one of the most obtuse, yet surprisingly ubiquitous religious/magical practices in the Western world.  Furthermore, The Skeleton Key does not shy away from a metaphor or two within its narrative, drawing clear ties and connections between notions of past oppressions and lingering cultural consciousness.  This film delicately walks the line between being a flat out horror film and an expertly crafted thriller, never giving way to definitions of either.  In a year that witnessed works like Howl's Moving Castle and Cache relegated to lesser than something like Crash or Batman Begins, it is pertinent to revisit 2005 works and The Skeleton Key is perhaps a great place to start, because it is truly a work deserving repeated mention.

The Skeleton Key begins by introducing viewers to Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) an overly zealous nurse in a retirement home, known for her close attachment to the aging patients, often sitting with them during their last moments.  After a realization that the retirement home does nothing more than treat their patients like customers, constantly trying to fill beds, as opposed to help their comfort, Caroline leave the job and applies to work in hospice at a house located on a remote portion of the bayou.  Despite the worries of her friend, Caroline sees this as an opportunity to properly help people, while also keeping hours more appropriate for her finishing her Nursing degree.  Also, it is revealed that Caroline had a problematic relationship with her late father, adding a layer of guilt to her wanting to help the elderly, particularly men, in their last days.  Upon meeting the man she will help Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) and his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) it is quite clear that their house does not exist on a earthly temporal plane and appears to be possessed by something otherwordly.  Yet, at the pleading of Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard), the Devereaux's attorney, Caroline agrees to stay.  It is only a matter of hours into staying there that Caroline realizes she is engaged in something very intense, specifically upon discovering a room full of voodoo materials and a recording of a chant, which is apparently related to transferring the soul of one person into a younger body to assure their continued existence.  Things fall apart around the Devereaux estate and Caroline becomes more paranoid, planning to save Ben from the house after it becomes apparent that he desperately wants to leave.  All the while the history of the house unfolds around Caroline in what reflects a history of brutality and darkness, resulting in a change of identity that becomes the point of centrality for the entire narrative, as such I will not spoil this here, suffice to say Caroline survives...to some degree.

The film clearly has a cultural commentary about it, one centered on racial tensions and past injustices, it is no coincidence that the film finds its narrative entrenched in New Orleans, perhaps one of the most intersected populations in The United States.  While the film is, on the surface level, concerned with notions of possession and hoodoo magical practices, a larger issue of cultural memory and acknowledgements of brutal pasts overarch the film.  It is no coincidence that the original procurers of the spell to transfer bodies were two assumedly former slaves, who were working as servants in the Devereaux household.  An incredibly violent scene of their lynching and burning after being caught showing the children hoodoo, suggests a larger narrative of Southern memories of racial violence.  Thus the failures of all characters to acknowledge these past injustices, lead to their cyclical involvement with the problematic possession.  The spectral force serves as a metaphor for passing on memories of injustice and oppression.  It proves difficult to possess or get Caroline to believe in hoodoo, not because she is susceptible to superstition, but because she refuses to play into the ignorant bliss of an idyllic Southern past, one invariably predicated on slavery.  Thus the presence of a spectral force transplanted via two black servants is intended to keep the tragedies of the past alive, because ignoring them allows for someone like Violet to continue in her racist ways, possessed or not.  It is when Caroline begins ignoring her own acts to sever racist ties to the past that she becomes open to the hoodoo, another layer of metaphor thus emerging, and if it is not all sinking in at this point keep in mind that the male servants name was Father Justify...a bit of an on the nose reference to retribution.

Key Scene:  When Violet initially explains the history of the house to Caroline, the film then cuts to a past which combines color and black and white imagery along with a slew of frame altering after effects, that make for one of the film most intense scenes, both in terms of what is being shown, as well as in how it is shown.

This is a film worth obtaining, it is super cheap.  I have a DVD copy, but plan to upgrade to Bluray as it is a truly spectacular film.

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