Skip to content

John’s Horror Corner: The Skeleton Key (2005), an atmospheric lesson in superstition and southern sensibilities.

May 1, 2021


MY CALL:  I have always loved this film. This isn’t the most exciting movie, nor is it shocking or gory or scary. This film relies on the well-informed development of its characters to patiently cultivate our sense of dread as a mystery slowly unfolds before us. So if you can handle a smartly written but slowburn horror, you should give this a try.  MORE MOVIES LIKE The Skeleton KeyWell, for more Hoodoo you should turn to Spell (2020). I’m also inclined to suggest Get Out (2017). For more geriatric horror, try The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), Bubba Ho-tep (2002), Late Phases (2014), The Visit (2015), Anything for Jackson (2020) and Relic (2020).

Deep in the swamp outside of New Orleans, hospice nurse Caroline (Kate Hudson; Good People) takes an in-home job at a grand plantation estate, the home of Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands; Taking Lives) and her invalid husband Ben (John Hurt; Hellboy I-II, Alien). Hired by the Devereaux’s dapper young estate lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard; The Killing, Flightplan) to make Ben’s final days more comfortable, Caroline finds herself in a home of antiquated ways and superstitions. From the accents to the cinematography of the swamps, this film is beautifully southern down to the charming, gentlemanly candor delivered by Sarsgaard.

Violet isn’t terribly trusting of her non-southern house guest, whether in regard to domestic chores, theft of their silver place settings, or the thoughtful care of her husband. They resist each other’s differences, struggling to find any common ground.

This is a horror film which invests tremendously in our learning about the characters—all of them. Patient but never slow, this film takes its time revealing the creepy nooks of the old house, Violet’s southern traditionalist ways, glimpses into the former homeowners’ lives, and various concepts on which we may focus our suspicion. As Violet gradually finds trust for Caroline, Caroline seems to be losing trust in Violet and both of them seem to care more aggressively for Ben. Meanwhile our discovery of folk magic and local lore spin the plot yet thicker.

What transpires toys with our expectations. As the story unfolds we wonder more and more… is this a supernatural horror, or a superstitious thriller? The pacing slowly builds as the movie advances until reaching a steadily exciting state for the final scenes.

Very pleasantly, this is among the few PG-13 horror movies that doesn’t feel like it had to pull any punches to be PG-13. We were deprived of no gore or any sort of gratuitous nudity. This movie never needed any of that. And that’s not to say that “needing” those things is a fault. I’m simply saying this particular story didn’t stand to benefit from them. Yet as PG-13 this remained every bit as creepy as I could imagine it being, while every bit as interesting.

Director Iain Softley (Hackers, K-Pax) and writer Ehren Kruger (The Ring 1-2, Scream 3) did an excellent job keeping this film classy and, as far as I can tell 16 years after its release, rather timeless. This is no ‘shock and awe’ gorefest nor is it a rollercoaster of jump scares. This film is all about investigating its characters and basking in an increasingly creepy atmosphere. So it may not be as intensely dreadful as The Ring (2002) or The Grudge (2004), or as fun as Dead Silence (2007) or Lights Out (2016). But this had its own stylish way, the patience of old southern countenance… and I continue to love it more with every viewing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2021 6:52 pm

    Great review! I enjoyed this movie, and as you pointed out is is nice seeing a PG-13 be creepy enough to be enjoyable, without having to toss in over the top vulgar language and gratuitous nudity to get the typically sought after R rating. I wish more would follow in these footsteps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: