On the first track of his 1993 album Triage, David Baerwald created a noirish "Secret Silken World," full of "sex and submission" where inhabitants got to "feel like the devil in the blue moonlight." While Baerwald typically travels along dark West Coast dreamscapes, his imagery could easily be transposed to the American South where the Blues unleash the hellhounds on voodoo devils and miscreant dabblers.
Director Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove) enlists the underground black codes of hoodoo, a spiritual cousin to voodoo, in Skeleton Key and ends up offering a respite of sorts from the recent slew of American remakes of Japanese horror films. Key's screenwriter is none other than Ehren Kruger, who also handled the writing chores for Hollywood versions of The Ring franchise and who has largely been responsible for the attempts to make this foreign orientation of the supernatural more familiar. We've become fascinated with the folklore and mysticism of other cultures while neglecting homegrown magic and our own peculiar institutional history.
Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) dutifully serves as a caretaker for terminal patients about to make their final transitions. Early in the film, she is seen holding on to the personal effects of one of the departed, once it becomes clear his family is not interested in claiming them. It is soon revealed that Caroline is performing a self-imposed penance of sorts after not making herself available to her own father in his last days.
Before long, she accepts an assignment from Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), a representative of Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands) who needs help with her brother, Ben (John Hurt), who passes his time in a vegetative state punctured by brief attempts to quite literally grab the attention of those around him. Violet distrusts Caroline because she's not a Southern belle, but before long the grandam introduces her young assistant to some of the terrible secrets of her old swamp mansion.
This being New Orleans, that old black magic rears its ugly head, but Softley wisely chooses to ground his supernatural elements with a sense of realism that doesn't need to rely on special effects to entertain. Beware the hot foot powder sprinkled all around the doors to keep away those who intend harm. He refuses to pander to audiences by bathing his movie in the clichéd sweaty sensuality of voodoo rituals and unbridled animalistic passions, despite having a young Hollywood starlet like Hudson in the lead.
As Caroline begins to investigate the mysterious goings-on in the house, using her skeleton key to unlock the murky past, her journey contrasts to that of Angel Heart's private eye, Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke): In that film he was pressed into service by Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to find the whereabouts of a small-time crooner on the lam. Voodoo fueled director Alan Parker's 1987 film as Angel's noirish quest turns on the notion that he is the hellhound on his own trail. In Skeleton Key, Caroline knows who she is — it's the hoodoo that tantalizingly teases her.
Instead of playing with a jumble of images, Softley takes full advantage of the Southern storytelling tradition. Caroline attentively listens to anecdotes from Violet, Luke and even her friend Jill (Joy Bryant), who as a New Orleans native has a certain familiarity with (and healthy fear of) black magic.
Caroline displays the usual annoying tendency to stumble further along the trail without fully questioning her sources. Fortunately, Hudson's minimalist performance grants a degree of immunity from the jeers audiences might otherwise bestow on such a hapless character.
Rowlands and Hurt provide the solid level of support expected from such acting heavyweights. They take showy, scenery-chewing roles and invest them with the necessary subtext that won't be completely clear to audiences until the film's climax.
Softley has dared to cast light on a misunderstood world that holds an exotic allure, but is rarely given an accurate portrait on-screen. Like film noir, voodoo seemingly exists as a racialized thematic device to highlight the morally compromised states of white protagonists.
Yet Skeleton Key subtly subverts the scheme. It uses complex historic horrors native to New Orleans and the South as a whole to rewrite the story of a pair of lesser figures who would normally be mere pawns in the proceedings. A few cries of outrage will no doubt sound as the final frames flicker off the screen, but as Louis Cyphere summed things up at the end of Angel Heart, "How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise."
Skeleton Key unlocks a view on "the nature of sin" and rather than offering redemption, simply says, as Baerwald put it, that "there's no need to be judgmental/no need to be polite/all you need to know is that might equals right." Softley shows the greater good is sometimes best served when the darkness is released. Grade: B