There’s a point in Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key— somewhere between the southern fried Gena Rowlands ranting about her invalid’s husbands “remedies” and Kate Hudson rubbing John Hurt’s frozen-in-horror face with voodoo juice— where it crosses the more observant viewer’s mind that this movie is channeling something quite wonderful and distinct. Old gal horror.
In perfect timing with the current DVD release of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Softley’s modern day bayou potboiler works in the tradition of those superb hags-gone-wild Robert Aldrich pictures of the ‘60s (Hush, Hush, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? chiefly). The Skeleton Key replaces those formidable female genius’ Bette, Joan and Olivia (and Tallulah Bankhead from the non Aldrich picture Die! Die! My Darling!) with the iconic Rowlands who does her precursors proud. Chewing the film’s scenery with impressive mastication, her honey tongued/toxic voice is a refreshing bit of true camp—true because it takes its camp somewhat seriously. The Skeleton Key wants to be scary for sure (and its not all that frightening), but its ambiance (gorgeously shot) and moments of hyper insanity raise it to the level of hot house glee—and you can tell Rowlands, a frequently brilliant actress and seasoned veteran, is in on the evil enchantment.
A broken down Grand Dame in bedroom slippers, Rowlands Violet struts around her swampy, haunted house with her nose continually in hospice worker Caroline’s (Hudson) business. Answering a caretaker job, Caroline enters the New Orleans plantation home where a mute stroke victim Ben (Hurt) appears perpetually terrified while his wife (Rowlands) immediately regards Caroline suspiciously. According to her, Caroline “wouldn’t understand the house”—and as the film continues there’s much to “understand.”
As any young, dewy faced hospice worker would, Caroline gets curious about the weird occurrences both in and out of the house. After all, this is New Orleans where voodoo shops are just around the corner and, in the case of this film, “Hoodoo” (a folk-magic offshoot I've never heard of) beckons, causing Caroline’s crash course in bayou magic 101. Maybe, just maybe, by using ''conjuration'' she can cure the catatonia of Ben who’s clearly not sick but under some evil spell conjured by Violet. Hence, the aforementioned water herb rubdown. And later, much, much more.
But before Caroline becomes deeply involved, she’s set to leave the nutty house filled with haunted mirrors (it would be hard to care for someone who silent screams when a teeny little compact is placed near the bathtub). But conferring with the snaky looking (but snakily cute) family estate lawer (Peter Sarsgaard), he convinces her to stay. Never mind all those past nurse dismissals (shades of the Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon caretaker horror, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?), Caroline can handle the old gal and this is her job dammit! And well, Caroline and the young lawyer really are the best looking people in the movie—shouldn’t they hook up at some point?
But it doesn’t work quite that easily as the film spirals into an off-the-charts last act that, despite what many critics will claim against, offers loads of giddy fun. Once Caroline faces off with Violet during one of those rainstorms that only happen in the South, we watch a drugged Violet pushed over a railing and fall down a flight of stairs. And yet, she’s so ultra hoodoo filled, the old broad is ready for round two. And, for another juicy topper, the film then has its “twist” which, even if you see coming, you'll enjoy the heck out of it anyway. I certainly did. Because, just as the title asked of Baby Jane, I've been wondering—Whatever happened to movies like this?
*On a related note read my similar defense of the film Hush starring Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow.
"The Skeleton Key" opens Friday, August 12.