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Caroline (Kate Hudson) is saving money so she can attend a nursing school, and answers an advertisement in the paper as a hospice caretaker to care for Ben (John Hurt), an elderly stroke victim who is unable to speak. Ben lives with his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) in a rambling old plantation house on the outskirts of New Orleans, where locals are renowned for their beliefs and mystical practices. Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), the legal representative, encourages Caroline to take the position, even though Violet is less than welcoming. Caroline is given a skeleton key, which opens every door in the house, including one at the back of the attic, which has been obscured by a bookcase. There she finds a mix of discarded items including artifacts connected to some kind of witchcraft.

Review by Louise Keller:
A stunning thriller with supernatural touches, The Skeleton Key is an intriguing and eerie film that becomes more chilling every minute. Filled with surprises and a shock of a twist in the final reel, writer Ehren Kruger's intelligent script seduces us slowly, making us believe through the eyes of his protagonist. Voodoo, spells and rituals form the pulse that pumps the storyline through our veins, while classy direction from Iain Softley (K-Pax) is effective, yet understated. Using the adage that less is more, Softley allows the creepy nature of the revelations literally to creep upon us.

When we meet Kate Hudson's Caroline, we immediately sense her compassion. Burdened by the guilt that she never looked after her father before he died, she cares for each dying patient as though he were her flesh and blood. Good intentions and a change of scenery entice her to accept a position as hospice caretaker in a rundown mansion off the beaten track in New Orleans. Her ward, Ben (John Hurt), is an elderly man whose recent stroke has left him unable to speak, and Caroline's initial concerns about his foreboding wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) are eased by the couple's lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard).

As Violet gives Caroline the skeleton key (a master key that unlocks each of the 30 rooms in the house), she hints at the house's history, and the shocking events that took place nearly a hundred years earlier. Black American witchcraft practitioners Mama Cecile and Papa Justify, worked here as the hired help, and died under scandalous circumstances. Hoodoo, similar to voodoo, is witchcraft that combines various practices used in American folk magic, as well as in African and European practices.

The house is sinister, with lifeless rooms, locked doors and noises that resonate at night. There's a carefully dusted, framed old black and white photo sitting on the mantelpiece, red brick dust to ward off evil spirits and 33 rpm vinyl records containing sacrifice ritual chants. All the mirrors have been taken off the walls and stored in the attic, where Caroline discovers a hidden door that the skeleton key will not open. The camera peers expectantly through keyholes, waiting for the elaborately scrolled key to reach its target, and entices us to partake the journey of unlocking secrets.

It's credit to an outstanding cast that makes the unbelievable plausible. Charismatic and totally credible, Hudson is superb as the pragmatic Caroline, intent to help Ben communicate. The power of the hoodoo only can be inflicted on those who believe, and we watch her fight desperately to preserve her rational thoughts. A disapproving look from Gena Rowlands' Violet can make any flower wither on the spot, while John Hurt creates a disturbing persona, using only his eyes and intense facial expressions in order to communicate. His face is etched with angst, a contrast to Peter Sarsgaard's Luke, whose character is built slowly, like an artist preparing his palette.

So intent was I not to miss a single revelatory moment, I tried not to blink in the final scenes. I did worry a little about how Kate Hudson managed to lift John Hurt into the car in the teaming rain, and there were a few too many lit candles in the climactic sequences. But overall, these were but little distractions in what is otherwise a gripping and haunting film, whose final moments linger long after you have left the cinema. I found I started playing the events over in my mind afterwards, and then my mind started playing with the concepts. Intriguing.

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(USA, 2005)

CAST: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Joy Bryant, Jen Apgar,

PRODUCER: Daniel Bobker, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Iain Softley

DIRECTOR: Iain Softley

SCRIPT: Ehren Kruger


EDITOR: Joe Hutshing

MUSIC: Ed Shearmur


RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes



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