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The Skeleton Key (2005)

"The Skeleton Key" tells of one girls 'magical' Hoodoo experience while working as a hospice nurse at a Louisiana plantation home. Intending to care for the dying Ben Devereaux, Caroline undergoes her duties with a cautious eye as strange things begin to happen in the home. From spooky noises to Ben's terrified stare, Caroline begins to suspect something is terribly wrong ... she just never suspected herself to be the one in danger!

The cast includes: Kate Hudson, John Hurt, and Gena Rowlands.

Written by: Ehren Kruger.

Directed by: Ian Softley.

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  Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Tagline: All you have to do is believe…

Rated: R for language, brief violence, and thematic content.

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The setting is current day Louisiana. Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) has dreams of becoming a nurse's practitioner. To accomplish those dreams she moves from New Jersey to work as a hospice nurse in a small town in Louisiana. A new position relocates her to the Devereaux estate where she is to attend to the terminally ill Ben Devereaux (John Hurt). But Violet Devereux (Gena Rowlands) is skeptical of the young girl's capabilities and keeps a watchful, sometimes unnerving eye on Caroline throughout her days.

As Caroline undertakes her work, caring for the handicapped Ben who was rendered paralyzed after a stroke in the attic, she begins to suspect that the lush scenery and grand estate may have a haunting past that provokes ill-feeling in the house. From the lack of mirrors, to the suspicious locked door in the attic, Caroline grows more and more suspicious of the house. Moreover there is an undeniable tension between her and Mrs. Devereaux which makes her rather uneasy at times. Her anxiety is only heightened when Ben randomly goes into a fit of panic as if he’s seen a ghost or feel trapped or something inexplicably wrong is occurring…

As Caroline begins to investigate she turns to Violet for inquires about the history of the house. As the 'story' goes her and Mr. Devereaux moved into the estate about sixty years ago after an elderly brother and sister were too old to care for the house. The children were the product of the first generation who initially owned the plantation. Working for the children’s parents were the slaves Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott). Rumor went that they were famous Hoodoo doctors who performed a series of magical feats from healing the sick etc. But apparently they were very powerful and could use their Hoodoo to hurt as much as heal. Meanwhile their antagonistic master was of no help in provoking friendly feelings.

One night the headmaster decided to host a fancy banking party where all the bigwigs of town would flock to socialize and imbibe themselves in copious amounts of liquor and music. After several hours had passed the guests noticed the children were missing. Searching every room in the house they at last found the children up in the attic in a circle surrounded with hundreds of lit candles. There Mama Cecile and Papa Justify stood seizing in violent fits before the horrified party guests. Apparently they were attempting to 'teach' the children how to ‘conjure a sacrifice’ (a spell that helps you buy more life by switching your soul into a younger body). Enraged, the parents dragged the slaves downstairs where they immediately hung them and burned them on their lawn.

Violet thus tells Caroline that it is rumored that the ghosts of Papa Justify and Mama Cecile still roam the house. The reason there are no mirrors is so that they don’t see the ghosts in the reflection. Violet then begins to censorship Caroline's acquisition of knowledge about Papa Justify’s taboo practice of Hoodoo. Apparently such superstitions are only real if one believes in them, like hypnotism. Unless you believe Hoodoo doesn't work. Nevertheless the practice has spread far and wide in the Southern plains of Louisiana and Caroline begins to suspect their might be a legitimacy to the brick dust and strings of bones hanging in the houses.

As Caroline snoops behind Violet’s back she begins to learn the inner workings of Hoodoo against the protestations of former Devereaux estate nurses and her best friend Jill. But Caroline is becoming more and more convinced that there is foul play and she begins to suspect none other than Violet for perpetuating Ben's illness which she believes to be caused only by Violet’s Hoodoo spells. Attempting to heal Ben, Caroline invites herself into the world of Hoodoo and so chooses to believe in its methods. But Violet intervenes before Caroline can fully heal Ben and it is right after Ben utters “Caroline help me!” that Violet insistently keeps Caroline away from her patient.

Caroline begins to fear that she too is in trouble and begins to employ methods of Hoodoo as safety precautions. Unable to fully grasp why, but suspecting the "Conjure of Sacrifice" record she found in the attack to play some important role in Violet’s plans, Caroline seeks help from Violet's young and affable lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard). But just when she thinks she has the story figured out a twist in the plot proves completely surprising, and life altering…

Racing to outrun her perpetrators Caroline realizes that she is person who is to be sacrificed, making Ben Devereaux a former sacrifice that has been kept drugged up by Hoodoo to prevent his telling anyone about his switch. But who is in Ben's body, and why is Violet trying to live if her husband is dying? Moreover, can ghosts do Hoodoo or did Papa Justify and Mama Cecile actually complete the 'Conjure of Sacrifice' ritual ninety years ago (which would mean that they must be the ones still alive)? But that means that the children were the one's hanged and that Caroline is to be the new body for Mama Cecile! Twists and turns fill this high-suspense climactic end. Can Caroline refuse to believe and save herself from Hoodoo doom or is she too far in to deny its truth?

SKELETON KEY is compelling. Though many people argue that it falls flat I argue that there is something they have missed. The ending is opened but not unsolvable and the implications it leaves behind are truly unnerving and further enrich the tale with equally gruesome and horrifying consequences. The story extends itself beyond the film’s conclusion and allows one to grapple with what actually happened to not just Caroline, but the real Luke, Violet, Ben, the former filial residents, and eventually Papa Justify and Mama Cecile. Though the story is a forward progression you actually have to work backwards and then forwards again to finally understand what happens to each character. Therefore, whereas most horror films are blatantly obvious and exact their terror through conventional scare tactics, SKELETON KEY is far more compelling in that it invokes inquisition and begs reflection after its ended.

But more than an interesting plot line the whole concept of Hoodoo itself is compelling. Apparently a legitimate but perverted form of Voodoo, the film offers an insight into the methodologies of Hoodoo and the apparent justification for its legitimacy. Hoodoo is practiced in the here and now and it is the psychological power of the mind to believe in such ‘magic’ that makes Hoodoo work. In that sense, the plot line isn’t altogether that far-fetched and unrealistic based on the premises of Hoodoo.

Moreover the film offers a unique cultural insight into the life of the Deep South. The film is filled with appropriately Southern, particularly Cajun Southern references from the dress, the dialect, the mannerisms, to the Blues music which fills the backdrop. SKELETON KEY isn't the best horror film to date, but it is extremely compelling and Hoodoo's legitimate practice gives SKELETON KEY a realism that makes it all the more frightening and intriguing.

PS: Also think about the title's implication. A skeleton key can unlock every door in a house. So too does Papa Justify and Mama Cecile operate in this manner as they enter any body they choose as if they are personified versions of a skeleton key.

Main Characters:

Kate Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, the garden state girl who moves to Louisiana and takes a hospice job at an old plantation in the Deep South where strange things await.

Gena Rowlands plays Violet Devereaux, wife of the dying Ben Devereaux, and senior owner of the Devereaux estate who employs Caroline’s help with her husband.

John Hurt plays Ben Devereaux, the dying husband of Violet Devereaux whose sudden illness smacks of mysterious foul play. Peter Sarsgaard plays Luke, the Southern gentlemanly lawyer with a knack for sweet talking.

Ronald McCall plays Papa Justify, former slave and mysterious Hoodoo Doctor who worked for the old masters of the Devereaux estate.

Jeryl Prescott plays Mama Cecile, Papa Justify's Hoodoo wife and also former slave of the Devereaux estate.