That old black magic has me in its spell
Okay, before I go further, I should warn you that this review will be biased. I was prepared to like Skeleton Key, even if it ended up being as dumb as those TV previews suggested, because
a) It's not a remake, or a - what's the term these Hollywood types are using to hide the fact that they're completely out of ideas and creativity? - reimagining.
b) It doesn't star Jessica Simpson. Whoever told that girl she could act should be tied up and forced to listen to "Irresistible" playing on repeat for a week. (Actually, her dad would probably like that.)
c) It does star Kate Hudson, who is adorable and talented.
However, those factors aside, it was still worth paying to go see, and because I have nothing better to do at the moment, I'll tell you why.
Firstly, I'm a very visual person, and I tend to enjoy any movie that's well-styled and well-filmed. Skeleton Key oozes with creepy atmospheric suspense -- blank-eyed dolls in dusty corners, empty chairs rocking in the breeze, Spanish moss dripping from every branch. Almost everything in the film is highly unusual, yet nothing really seems out of place. What I loved most was the dim, pervasive mood of fear enshrouding every scene. Watching it feels like stumbling through a cold, damp fog, the kind that slowly settles into your bones.
Secondly, SK is as easy to like as it is hard to swallow. It's a Deep Southern concoction of ghost stories, oddball characters, dark history, Gothic conventions, and folk magic. The premise - "it's not real unless you believe it" - is thought-provoking at times and simply confusing at others. The plot is pretty twisted, but essentially, a young hospice worker (Hudson) from New Jersey moves into an old mansion in the backwaters of Louisiana to help an elderly woman care for her paralyzed husband. That the house has a secret comes as no surprise, but the full nature of it certainly does. The mystery unfolds at a frenzied pace in the last twenty minutes, resulting in a breathless double take of a conclusion.
The best surprises in this movie, though, were the skillful acting and character development. Kate Hudson doesn't shine, and that's her biggest triumph, because she would have ruined the movie with her natural radiance. Instead, she manages to be both subdued and intensely focused as she moves, slowly and convincingly, from cynical outsider to terrified victim. Hudson is supported by a number of highly talented actors, including Gena Rowlands as the sweet-voiced, secretive Mrs. Devereaux, Peter Sarsgaard as the estate lawyer and almost-perfect gentleman, and Joy Bry...uh...never mind.
Still, my guess is you'd be hard pressed to find a glowing review of Skeleton Key. The first three quarters are unnecessarily bogged down in exposition, and even the dialogue is slow and heavy at times. The story - while creative, interesting, and even, at times, completely unpredictable - is marred by a surplus of Southern tropes and zany superstitions.* Mostly, however, it falls into a kind of no man's land between campy horror and provocative mystery; it's too intricate for most scary movie lovers and too exaggerated for most film critics.
*Personally, I enjoyed the fussy, theatrical contrivances, and felt they deepened the creepy atmosphere. (Well, the horrific black-and-white flashback to the double lynching, that I didn't enjoy so much. Sorry for the spoiler, but I feel you should be warned if you're going to see it, which I think you should anyway. Just cover your eyes when you see the ropes go up. Oh god, that sounds flippant and callous. I'm sorry. It was really, really upsetting, and we all know how I like to joke about things that upset me.)
Bottom line? Go see it, if only for the spectular, genre-defying twist of an ending.