The Skeleton Key (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Built on several unexpected twists and a surprise ending, The Skeleton Key is one of those films which is impossible to describe without spoiling. Briefly, a young hospice worker decides to leave institutional work and go into private care. Her first client is an elderly man living on a crumbling Southern plantation in the Louisiana bayou country. She finds that the house and the surrounding area are teeming with hoodoo, a form of black magic which traces its roots to African tribal lore. I hesitate to say any more other than that it can be considered a supernatural suspense yarn.

The film's strongest positives center around its visual appeal: texture, mood, and atmosphere are all delivered in spades by a beautiful combination of spooky bayou exteriors and interiors cluttered with the paraphernalia of frightening and unknown practices. Within that Gothic foundation, suspense is built slowly and scares are earned without any cheap shots like the inevitable hidden cat. The negatives involve a very formulaic Hollywood studio script and the fact that the showdown involves the usual undefeatable villain who seems to recover several times from fatal blows.

For me, the factor that tilts the scale in the positive direction is the "look back" factor. When one writes about a bad mystery film while knowing the ending, the process of recapping the earlier details for others unearths a myriad of contradictions and several things that seemed to make sense at the time but no longer add up, given the ending. When writing about a good mystery film, the opposite happens. The ending provides illumination to tiny details that didn't make sense at the time. As I was watching the film I was getting irritated by certain details, thinking things like, "How could she know that? She wasn't there." There seemed to be about a half dozen apparent gaps in the film's logic. When I knew the ending, however, all of those details did make sense. If I had approached all of those contradictions with a different attitude, replacing my skepticism with trust that each apparent contradiction was a piece in a carefully-assembled puzzle, I might well have solved the mystery before the solution was fed to me.

My only real complaint is that it's a little draggy. After all, it's basically just a typical 1950s comic book story from the likes of "The Vault of Horror," so I couldn't shake the feeling that the same story could have been delivered more effectively as a 60 minute HBO show. At any rate, it's a pretty slick little puzzle, with an ending that I didn't anticipate but which nonetheless fit the facts, and it's dripping with atmosphere along the way. The critics seemed to want more, but I think that's pretty much all you can reasonably expect from the genre, and audiences seemed to agree. If you look at the measurements below, you'll see that the critical scores are quite low, but the audience scores are solid. (IMDb 6.3, Yahoo B-, Box Office $48m). That sums it up. It's not a genre classic, but it's a satisfying summer flick.



  • Commentary by director Iain Softley
  • Deleted scenes with commentary by Softley
  • The production featurettes "Behind the Locked Door - Making The Skeleton Key" and "Casting The Skeleton Key"
  • The short featurettes "Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo" (on the history of hoodoo and the religion of voodoo) and "Blues in the Bayou" (the music)," Plantation Life" (the history of plantations), and "A House Called Felicity" (locations),
  • A ghost story by Kate Hudson
  • A love spell from Gena Rowlands
  • John Hurt reading a disturbing excerpt from the book "Voices from Slavery"


Kate Hudson does a topless scene, but the she is photographed from the side-rear. If there is a nipple there, I didn't see it.

Kate is also see in a wet t-shirt, braless. In this scene, the shape of the nipple is visible.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: two and a half  stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 2.5/4

  • British consensus out of four stars: two stars. Mail 4/10,  Independent 3/10, Guardian 7/10, Times 5/10, Sun 7/10, Express 2/10, Mirror 2/10, FT 4/10, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It grossed $48m in wide release (2,700 theaters), and another $44 million overseas. The reported production budget was $42 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C, unspectacular but solid genre fare.

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