Movie Discussion: Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key (2005)

  • Monthly Theme: Witchcraft & Black Magicskeleton_key_xlg
  • The Film: The Skeleton Key
  • Country of origin: U.S.A
  • Date of U.S. release: August 12, 2005
  • Studio: Universal Pictures, ShadowCatcher Entertainment, et al.
  • Distributer: Universal Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $47.9 million
  • Budget: $43 million (estimated)
  • Director: Iain Softley
  • Producers: Daniel Bobker, Michael Shamberg, et al.
  • Screenwriters: Ehren Kruger
  • Adaptation? No
  • Cinematographer: Daniel Mindel
  • Make-Up/FX: Jason Hamer, et al.
  • Music: Ed Shearmur
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre actor John Hurt (Alien, The Shout, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood star Kate Hudson. Character actor Peter Sarsgaard. Legendary actress Gena Rowlands.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “It can open any door.”
  • The Lowdown: The Skeleton Key was made as a “mainstream” supernatural thriller pitched at a wide audience. It starred Kate Hudson fresh off the huge success of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. The film was written by Ehren Kruger, a genre screenwriter with a very spotty track record. He penned the super-successful American adaptation of The Ring and the decently-fun Jeff Bridges thriller Arlington Road, but he’s also been involved in co-writing the screenplays for those terrible Transformers movies, for Scream 3 (failure), the Terry Gilliam movie The Brothers Grimm (failure), the truly awful The Ring Two, the Y/A werewolf thriller Blood & Chocolate (abysmal), and a couple of other random, shitty thrillers (Imposter and Reindeer Games). Directing duties were assumed by Iain Softley, the British filmmaker who was coming off the one-two combo of the horrible Henry James adaptation The Wings of the Dove (starring Helena Bonham-Carter’s moist, leaking eyes) and the universally-embarrassing “Kevin-Spacey-is-either-autistic-or-he’s-a-magical-alien” movie K-PAX. But somehow The Skeleton Key manages to be, if not “good” per se, than at least fascinating and promising. Bolstered by fantastic performances by vets like Gena Rowlands and John Hurt, the movie’s Southern Gothicism almost works.

If you haven’t seen The Skeleton Key our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: So, The Skeleton Key. Southern Gothic thriller. “Tackles” race. What the hell?

Kristine: I mean… the race stuff could not have been handled more clumsily.

Sean: I have so much to say about it.

Kristine: Me, too. But can I start off by saying that for a pretty basic movie, jeez does it get convoluted. It took me a while to remember who was in whose body and work it all out, but NOT because the movie is complex. It’s just retardedly convoluted. Does that make sense?

Kate Hudson covets all the Pier 1 Imports candles and mirrors IN THE WORLD!

Sean: Huh. Yes, that makes sense. I didn’t feel that way, but I did think it was silly. I think the problem with the movie is twofold: 1) It doesn’t embrace its own silliness enough and 2) it doesn’t actually have any ideas. Those may seem like contradictory complaints, but they are not mutually exclusive in my mind…

Kristine: I agree with both your complaints. I must say, I did love the last scene, when Kate Hudson is in Gena Rowlands’ body and Peter Sarsgaard is trapped in John Hurt‘s body and they are strapped down in the ambulance being like, ‘What the fuck we are so screwed.’

Sean: Yes. The ending feels very “classic Twilight Zone” in a great way. Let’s do this workshop-style and start off with what we liked and then move into… issues. What did you like about the movie?

Kristine: The setting. I am a sucker for Southern Gothic, so the movie automatically got points there. I found John Hurt‘s character compelling and I wanted to know what was going on with him. Peter Sarsgaard was sexy even though his accent was ridic. I love hoodoo voodoo stuff, too, even though in this movie’s hands it was horribly offensive.

Sean: Yes agreed about the setting. I love it. In fact, everything about the premise is great: the locale, the voodoo mysticism, the hagsploitation elements, the mystery, and I actually love the mythology of Mama Cecile and Papa Justify.

Kristine: I did, as well. I just wanted Lady Chablis to shantay into the movie.

Sean: What is Lady Chablis?

Kristine: The drag queen character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Sean: Obscure.

Kristine: Not even obscure. RuPaul is going to give you a tongue-lashing.

Sean: I loved that when the racist whities lynched the servants, they were actually lynching the two white kids trapped in their bodies. The race stuff in this movie was rich with possibilities…

Kristine: That was great and also very Twilight Zone. But, Sean, can we talk about that scene? That was a scene I would have written as an idealistic and race-conscious 6-year-old.

Gena Rowlands’ reaction to Bride Wars.

Sean: Which? Finding the black folks trancing out in the attic with the white kids?

Kristine: The trancing-out part was awesome. But I mean the whities wearing top hats and tails and screeching with laughter and pouring champagne as they hang themselves some darkies.

Sean: Oh the actual lynching. Yeah it was absurd

Kristine: I mean, come on.

Sean: I actually was grossed out by how slick that sequence was. It’s like, this is a horror movie. The lynching needed to suckerpunch us in the gut and make us feel horrible. You can’t make a slick, MTV-edited lynching scene, sorry. It feels morally bankrupt.

Kristine: But most strikingly, how can the movie present this horrible lynching in a critical light and then make the only living black character in the movie (Caroline’s friend Jill) have such a mammy role??? And how come Jill just instinctively knows about hoodoo? Just because she is black?

Sean: No, I buy that Jill’s from the region, so she would know of it. I don’t think that’s a stretch.

Kristine: Hmph.

Sean: But I would argue that Jill needed to be the main character. I think the movie’s biggest misstep is casting a white actress in the lead role. It fucks the racial politics of the movie and really fetishizes “blackness” in a gross, uncomfortable way. If Caroline was a woman of color, all of her interactions with the Gena Rowlands character (Violet Devereaux, who is actually the soul of Mama Cecile inhabiting Violet’s body) would have been so much more complicated and cool. The idea of a black woman from the Jim Crow-era living inside of a white body in the modern era, and a white body who represents the landed Southern gentry, interacting with a contemporary, modern African-American woman as an employee would have been super-fascinating and allowed the movie to really get to some great places.

Kristine: That reminds me of something else I liked: how everyone kept telling Caroline that she wouldn’t understand things because she is not from the area, that she’s a Yankee. That rings true as a thing Southerners say, and might possibly be right about.

“It’s okay to be old,” she whispered.

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: I absolutely agree that it should have been a black actress. But if you are going to go white – why Kate Hudson? Kate is the whitest of all whities, except maybe for Katherine Heigl.

Sean: Kate is an ivory Gelfling. I wish this had been a star vehicle for like, Gabrielle Union or Regina King.

Kristine: I agree. FYI, I still loathe Kate even though she was just whatever in this movie.

Sean: I want you to explain to me how wretched she was. Was it just the flip flops?

Kristine: Well, she wasn’t especially wretched in this movie. But there were a few things that made me want to scream: 1. Insouciantly wearing flip flops in every scene.

Sean: I thought nurses had to wear, like, Tempur-pedic mattresses on their feet for back support?

Kristine: Well, yes, exactly. Especially pushing around wheelchairs in the bayou. So stupid. 2. Her ridiculous back story about being, like, a band manager and on the road, so she missed caring for her aging father so now she is a hospice worker. Stupid, and feels like a dumb nod to Kate’s role in Almost Famous and her real life role as rock ‘n roll muse to jam bands the world over. Gross. Eye roll.

Sean: It did feel like they added those details after casting her.

Kristine: 3. I didn’t at all buy her as a ballsy badass when she was strutting around, making demands and being like “What is going on now, Violet?”

Sean: Yeah, rewatching this with you, I thought Caroline seemed really obstinate and pushy and rude.

Kristine: She was. Okay, so I have a plot question. When we meet the Devereaux clan, Mama Cecile is inhabiting Violet’s body and Papa Justify is in Peter Sarsgaard’s body, correct? So Peter S. is in Ben Devereux’s body, right?

The smug Southern armfold, demonstrated (also known as “the Seersucker”).

Sean: Yes. Luke, the cute young lawyer, has already been swapped out.

Kristine: So, then why is Violet/Mama Cecile so adamant about keeping the body of Ben Devereaux (with the lawyer’s soul in it) alive? The switch has already taken place.

Sean: That is weird. Good call. I think she is dosing him with voodoo Rohypnol to keep him stroked out, so he can’t tell everyone who he really is.

Kristine: And why did Papa Justify (in Luke’s body) take Kate to talk to that other hospice worker who warned her to go away? Seems like they would want her to stay so Mama Cecile could make her move. It was weird. I want to add that I found the scene when Ben crawls out on the roof during the storm stressful and bananas.

Sean: Agreed. Can I just say how awesome Gena Rowlands and John Hurt are in this movie?

Kristine: They are amazing.

Sean: They’re the whole reason the movie works as much as it does.

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: Especially Gena. She was the best character/performance.

Kristine: So, let me ask you this – have you ever had experience with voodoo?

Sean: Zero. That is so not a part of the culture anywhere I’ve lived. Isn’t it like, only a Louisiana thing?

Kristine: Well, the Caribbean. Haiti.

Sean: No I meant in the United States, isn’t voodoo or voudun or what-have-you a part of the local color in Louisiana and not really anywhere else? FYI, the screenwriter of this movie is a Virginian.

Photoshopped images from Chris Robinson’s hard drive.

Kristine: I think anywhere in the South, but especially Louisiana.

Sean: OK, well no I don’t have any voodoo experiences. I did do a “spell” where I burned pictures of my dad trying to make him die when I was like 13.

Kristine: Amazing.

Sean: Do you have voodoo herstory? You’re from the screenwriter’s general vicinity.

Kristine: Not really… I mean once I was in New Orleans for a conference and got a tarot reading at a voodoo shop in the French Quarter and everything came true. But that’s not really voodoo. And as a teen I had a “spell box” with like, a candle and a lace hanky or whatever in it. But I don’t remember ever doing anything with it.

Sean: What came true in your reading?

Kristine: She predicted that my relationship with my then-current boyfriend would end shortly thereafter and a new one would begin. That’s the main thing I remember.

Sean: Um, that’s just the relationship life cycle of Kristine. Ever since I’ve known you (about 15 years now) you’ve re-upped every 3-to-6 months or so.

Kristine: Shut up. I am a grown-ass woman now. Those were the antics during my wild girlhood.

Sean: Mmm-hmm.

Kristine: Anyway, I wanted more hoodoo in this movie. Those details were the best parts. Except the mirror thing was kind of hokey. Did you think Mama Cecile and Papa Justify’s attic room was scary?

Sean: Attic room = not scary. But I loved the house.

Kristine: I wanted it to be scary so bad.

“Don’t use your swamp logic on me, Violet!”

Sean: I have some grand statements to make. May I?

Kristine: No. Frivolous questions first. If you could swap bodies with someone, would you?

Sean: Ok, Anne Rice wrote a vampire novel about that and it was fun. And that was like, one of my number one obsessive fantasies as a teenager.

Kristine: Really.

Sean: I wanted to swap into the body of a gay porn star. Duh. You?

Kristine: I mean, I have been envious of some people’s physical traits or lives… but I don’t remember actually wanting to inhabit someone else’s body or life, no.

Movie to Joy Bryant: You are black and don’t you forget it.

Sean: Any more frivolous questions?

Kristine: One more frivolity – did you find Peter Sarsgaard hot?

Sean: You know, I thought he was very dapper in this movie, and I’ve never thought he was handsome before. Maybe it was just the ridiculously bad Southern accent and the country club threads. Like, when we saw An Education I thought he was gross. But here he was totally fetching.

Kristine: You know, it didn’t really resonate with me when we first watched this, but now, after experiencing the death of an elderly relative, I see this movie as also a general reflection on aging and the horror of being trapped in a body that doesn’t feel like yours and that you can’t control. John Hurt‘s character makes me sad.

Sean: That was one of my grand statements.

Kristine: I stole it.

Sean: You insisted on frivolity and then stole one of my ideas.

Kristine: I love me.

Sean: Argh. So I have a question for you. Do you think that Inglourious Basterds was morally and aesthetically bankrupt? This ties in with The Skeleton Key, I swear. Because you know that lots of critics were like, You can’t make a fun movie about Nazis, and you’re a monster for trying.

Kate Hudson celebrates Father’s Day.

Kristine: No, I don’t think that at all. I don’t have those kind of rules for my media. I mean, The Producers did it long ago.

Sean: Well ok, because I actually love the idea of processing traumatic and/or controversial things about the real world through pop culture, especially genre or “junk” culture…

Kristine: Right. I agree.

Sean: Have you seen the preview for Django Unchained?

Kristine: No.

Sean: Well you should watch and tell me what you think. My point in all this is, I think The Skeleton Key actually is condescending in almost all ways, but especially to it’s own basic premise and to the genre of movie it aspires to be. It’s like, this is just a horror movie, we don’t have to take any of these ideas seriously. We don’t have to take racism or lynching seriously. But here’s my big proclamation: The thing that horror and other genre fare can do that is amazing is both take Big Ideas seriously but still be weird, crazy, irreverent and campy/ridiculous.

Kristine: Right. I believe this is true, but can you give examples?

Sean: Well, Inglourious Basterds for one. But also basically any Pedro Almodóvar movie.

Kristine: Yes. Also, The Descent and Martyrs, I think (loss / class, respectively). The Descent speaks much more powerfully to the psychic devastation of loss, then, say, fucking 21 Grams. That movie.

Sean: That movie sucks donkey slime. Okay so I think The Skeleton Key has two big ideas buried in there: 1) Aging and mortality, the point which you co-opted earlier and 2) Whiteness/blackness and the tensions there. The idea of these black characters working their way through the centuries in white bodies. I mean, what the fuck? And remember after Mama Cecile finds herself in Caroline’s body she says, “I thought I told you I wanted a black one this time.” That was the only gesture towards actually acknowledging the fairly complicated/fascinating racial politics of the premise.

Kristine: I do remember that, because maybe now they figure African-Americans have enough rights that it is permissible/safe to inhabit a black body? Earlier you said this movie had no ideas. Can we amend that statement to say that this movie has ideas but explores them clumsily and not completely?

Sean: I will allow that it gestures towards ideas. But the gesture is a quickly flinging out spazzing arm.

Kristine: Ha, agreed.

Movie to audience: Houses where old ladies live are just naturally terrifying.

Sean: If this movie had embraced the premise, it would have been amazing. But Justify and Cecile are used by the plot in some pretty icky ways, rather than ever being subjects in the story.

Kristine: I absolutely agree. Even though Justify and Cecile are victims, they are still the devils of this movie.

Sean: Yeah, and I am totally down for the movie to make us sympathize with their fucked-up body-jumping….

Kristine: Me, too.

Sean: But instead they’re just depicted as abject, tribal weirdos. The fat lady in the hidden laundromat voodoo shop (I did like that detail of it being hidden in plain sight) was totally the Mammy from Jeepers Creepers cousin. Is this movie racist?

Kristine: I say yes, because think about how much time it spends building up Caroline’s back story – her work in the hospice, her regret about not being there for her aging dad. That stuff is marginally important because we get some insight as to why she is protective of John Hurt, but not really. I mean, it could have just opened with her applying for the job and that would have been fine. Now think of how little time the movie spends on the backstory of Cecile and Justify, how they were treated badly, how they had no choice. Why does this dumb white girl get all this attention paid to her motivations? Who cares? I am glad she doesn’t defeat them. I am glad her body was taken. Ha ha, Kate.

Sean: And remember the old man at the beginning of the movie who dies, and then she has to throw away his box of possessions, was black?

Kristine: I didn’t remember that.

Sean: So right there, the movie sets up a cool parallel to Justify and Cecile.

Kristine: If I was Mama Cecile or Papa Justify, I would switch it up every couple years and take on the body of the opposite sex, wouldn’t you? Just to see.

Sean: Yes. But I also thought the whole way they’re linked to that house was kind of plantation-y and gross.

Kristine: I agree. They are “chained” there just as they were when they were servants.

Sean: But it’s like, would you want to live in the place where you were a Jim Crow-era servant? I’d be like, fuck this I’m going to Paris, to Nigeria, to Buenos Aires. Or even to Atlanta for god’s sakes.

Miss Southern Evil Hag 2005

Kristine: Well, I can see the appeal of being the master where you once served, but I think it’s cause the hoodoo only works there. The house is supposed to be a third character, along with Justify and Cecile, but again the movie doesn’t explore this, other then Violet saying, “She doesn’t understand the house” and things like that.

Sean: Hoodoo shouldn’t be locationally specific, I don’t think. That’s a cop-out.

Kristine: Hoodoo is weird because you need all your trinkets and doodads. You can’t just hoodoo with your mind. You need lotions and potions.

Sean: You need like, chicken knuckles…

Kristine: Right. Eye of newt.

Sean: Well, my closing thoughts: I do like these kinds of silly mainstream thrillers, but I don’t think that means they get to cop out on their own ideas. I am sure some horror fans would be like, “THIS MOVIE DOESN’T QUALIFY AS HORROR!” What do you think of “real” horror fans being all “The Skeleton Key is beneath us”? Like hardcore horror people think anything resembling this movie is dumb, which I think is also sexist, because these kinds of movies are often vehicles for women.

Kristine: To answer your question, I think a lot of it is self-selecting down to feel like a special subculture. Like, anything with mass appeal can’t qualify. Anything that our moms would like doesn’t qualify. It’s dumb, but it’s typical subculture stuff. To be all, ‘real’ horror movie people don’t consider this watered down ladies’ movie to be “horror.”

Sean: I also think that our culture holds Hollywood actresses in a special place of contempt that male celebs are exempt from. Like, Kristen Stewart gets hated on in ways that like, Jeremy Renner doesn’t.

Kristine: Right, sure. But I do think horror is a bit of a refuge from that….  So my favorite part of the movie was the Caroline/Violet showdown, like when Caroline was seeing if she could get Violet to enter her room when she had the protective powder spread around the perimeter. And I think the end scene is pretty fucking horrifying.

Sean: Loved the powder-off. The dark ending is great and I do give them full credit for going with that fucked up ending.

Kristine: While I agree it’s weird that Justify and Cecile would want to inhabit white bodies, it’s cool to think of the extra indignity of inhabiting the bodies of bigoted white people who don’t want black people in their pools or using their drinking fountains. Like, now I’m in your body, fuck face. What do you think about that???

Sean: Right. It’s a really interesting premise.

Kristine: I have a question – when do (or do they) the original parents find out they lynched their kids?

Sean: Do they ever? I don’t think they ever do.

Kristine: I just remembered one aspect of the movie we haven’t discussed – that definitely could impact the racial and gender reading of this movie. How could I have forgotten?

Sean: What?

Kristine: Do you remember the scene when Justify (in Luke’s body) is hitting on/lightly romancing Caroline? And Cecile (in Violet’s body) sees it and is pissed off? Do you read that as Justify doing that to keep Caroline around so Cecile can jump bodies, or do you read it as a black man having a boner for white lady? Also, isn’t Justify-as-Luke the one who calms Cecile-as-Violet down when she wants to reject Caroline? And keeps telling Caroline that she is “prettier” then she thought she would be? Do you sense a rivalry?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Is this why Cecile wants a black body and Justify chooses a white one?

Sean: Total Mandingo melodrama.

Kristine: By the way, when I worked at Casa Video, Mandingo got rented all the time. We literally could not keep the VHS tape on the shelf.

Sean: I am renting it tomorrow.

Ratings Roundup

The Girls Rating: Nice try, folks.

The Freak’s Rating: Nice try, folks.

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