Whether you would enjoy supernatural thriller The Skeleton Key may come down to two factors: 1) Your tolerance of dark depictions of witchcraft and voodoo. 2) Your tolerance of movies written by Ehren Kruger.

I'll get to the use of magic and sorcery in a moment, but first Kruger. The Skeleton Key is pretty much what you would expect from the screenwriter of disappointing films such as Scream 3, Reindeer Games and Arlington Road—a sometimes taut, somewhat compelling film hurt by a predictable and convoluted plot, and a big "gotcha" ending that really doesn't get ya. Kruger is a poor man's M. Night Shyamalan. In The Sixth Sense, M. Night revealed a key detail in the shocking ending that made the rest of the movie seem smarter. But Kruger's rarely surprising story twists typically make the rest of each film seem dumber. In the case of The Skeleton Key, Kruger's ending is so derivative that if I were to mention the name of a thriller released a few years ago, you'd know almost exactly how the film ends.

Kate Hudson stars as Caroline, a live-in nurse who stumbles upon a terrifying secret

Kate Hudson stars as Caroline, a live-in nurse who stumbles upon a terrifying secret

But that's not to say the film doesn't have any strengths. Despite thriller clichés and predictability, it's interesting for much of its running time, thanks to a handful of superb scenes, some natural laughs and suspense and strong performances. Skeleton Key tells the story of young New Orleans hospice worker Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) who takes a job as the live-in nurse for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), an elderly man paralyzed by a stroke. From the get-go, there is something weird about the old Southern plantation house Ben shares with his bossy and demanding wife Violet (Gena Rowlands). As Caroline investigates the bizarre goings-on in the house and around Ben's illness, she unveils a weird history of sorcery and voodoo.

This isn't as much a horror film as Kruger's one decent screenplay so far, The Ring (which was probably his best because it was adapted from the Japanese version). Instead, The Skeleton Key is a suspenseful thriller with an eerie atmosphere like The Sixth Sense crossed with The Others and given a creepy New Orleans-voodoo vibe. Although it is more thriller than horror, Kruger still litters his film with many horror clichés. For instance, Caroline is one of those annoying horror movie heroines who investigates every strange noise, enters a big scary house when no one answers her knocking, and actually does whatever she can to get into a mysterious attic room with a door that just keeps banging on its own. No one would do the things Caroline does unless they had a very big axe or the National Guard backing them up.

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Caroline (Hudson) discovers some dark secrets in the mansion

Caroline (Hudson) discovers some dark secrets in the mansion

Thematically, there are bigger concerns. The film does present the reality of evil forces that can be manipulated by men. In some ways, this is not unlike the supernatural thrillers by Christian author Frank Peretti. However, there are substantial and troubling differences. First, there is no equally good force present to counteract or fight the dark magic. In fact, the evil sorcery is shown to be quite wily, powerful, and without equal.

Second, the idea of magic and sorcery is portrayed in a very curious manner. The film stresses repeatedly that dark powers only work against you if you believe they are real. This idea is first introduced when Caroline is asking a friend about the sorcery she's discovered. The friend says that it is not actually voodoo, but "hoodoo." She explains that voodoo is a religion. Hoodoo, she explains, is African-American folk magic that is "harmless. It can't hurt you unless you believe in it."

John Hurt plays Ben, the stroke victim Caroline is assisting

John Hurt plays Ben, the stroke victim Caroline is assisting

When all is said and done, the movie treats hoodoo, a very real system of magic, like a sugar pill—if you believe it is working, it does. Caroline thinks the results of one hoodoo spell are a psychosomatic symptom; she says the man is only under a "spell" because he believes it. She even performs a spell not because she thinks it will heal him but because she's convinced he will believe it. Caroline doesn't just fake the spell though. She goes into something like a Hoodoo-R-Us and gets the authentic materials and performs a ritual. It works—but we are not sure if it works because Kate is fighting dark magic with the forces of good (the candle she uses is shaped like a cross) or because it adequately convinces the patient. Despite this ambiguity, the film's worldview remains that forces of darkness cannot harm us unless we believe they are real. One of the film's climactic scenes include a baddie saying, "It takes longer and longer [to harm people with hoodoo]. People nowadays don't believe like they used to. You have to get them all riled up."

Violet (Gena Rowlands) only adds to the creepy atmosphere

Violet (Gena Rowlands) only adds to the creepy atmosphere

When Kruger's big twist comes, you realize the whole "only works if you believe" thing is a silly plot device to explain why the movie didn't end after 10 minutes. But plot device or not, this narrow worldview is destructive too. It gives the impression that ignorance to the bigger picture of our supernatural world really is bliss. In addition, religious imagery and Christian beliefs often get lumped in with superstition and spell casting as things that will affect you only if you believe in them.

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The good news about The Skeleton Key is that the inaccurate portrayal of the spiritual world does not mess up an otherwise good movie—because this is not a good movie. The whole thing's pretty sub-par. And I guess that's not much of a surprise ending.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. In the beginning, Caroline was disturbed by the way the hospice handled the dead. What do you think of our society's view of death? Who is most to blame—those who make a business of death or those who don't care for their own relatives?

  2. How could this movie have depicted a more biblical portrayal of the supernatural and sorcery? (See Eph. 6:10-1)

  3. What do you make of the film's assumption that the spiritual world (good or evil) can't affect you if you don't believe it? What do you think this message says about other things you have to believe in—like God?

  4. Do you think there can be magic or supernatural forces that cannot affect you if you don't believe in them? What protects us from those forces (Matt. 6:13)?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

This film is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material. There are only a handful of swear words, including one use of the Lord's name in vain. The partial nudity is a woman's bare back and glimpses of the sides of her breasts. The disturbing images are of the most concern—including hangings, human burnings, a character with eyes and mouth sewed shut, and other voodoo-type situations. The prevalence of sorcery and dark spells make the film even more disturbing.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/18/05

Director Iain Softley delivers this week's mediocre horror film, The Skeleton Key, which stars Kate Hudson (Almost Famous), Gena Rowlands, and John Hurt. Hudson plays the caretaker for a dying New Orleans man (Hurt) whose home rests on a foundation of bloody secrets and enchantment. Lacking the sense to quit the job, she lingers long enough to give us almost two hours of cheap thrills.

Rarely impressed with horror films, Christian press critics find this one typically off-key.

"This is a throwback to the kind of horror film they don't make much anymore," says Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "On the plus side, the violence is relatively tame by today's standards, there's only a smattering of bad language and sex is nonexistent. On the other hand, the story line is often predictable, and Ehren Kruger's dialogue is more likely to elicit quiet chuckles of recognition than real thrills, but the story—hoary though it is—at least effectively holds your interest."

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Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "This film can't decide if it wants to be a supernatural thriller or a murder mystery. In the end, it tries to be both, relying on a twist ending that will have audiences feeling like they've just seen a poor rip-off of The Sixth Sense."

Mainstream critics seem similarly weary of spooky disappointments.

The Skeleton Key
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material)
Directed By
Iain Softley
Run Time
1 hour 44 minutes
Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant
Theatre Release
August 12, 2005 by Universal
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