- September 23, 2021
Peacock, rated PG-13, 104 minutes
I watched "The Skeleton Key" this week after reading about it on a few publications. All I remembered about this movie was the scene where Kate Hudson looks through a keyhole. I certainly didn't remember the swampy New Orleans setting, the awful accent used by Peter Sarsgaard or the mildly intriguing twist. Although the film isn't an underrated masterpiece like some claim it to be, it is atmospheric and fun enough to recommend a watch.
Let's talk about the setting first because, to me, that's the main draw here. Not nearly enough movies take place in the bayou. You can feel the humidity suppressing the characters in every scene of "The Skeleton Key." The water tupelos and cypress trees rise out of the muddy water like beanstalks leading to a giant. There are shots of peacocks and lizards and, of course, a crocodile — but not as a scare, just as window dressing. The entrance to the Devereaux mansion, where most of the film takes place, looks exactly like the Braithwaite mansion in "Red Dead Redemption 2," to the point where I wonder if this film was a direct influence on it. It's gorgeous stuff. Mix that with the bluesy soundtrack and more than a dash of Hoodoo culture — lines of brick dust, hanging bones, etc. — and you're got yourself a delicious gumbo of a film cooking.
Does the story match the setting's excellence? Not really. Like I said, "The Skeleton Key" basically serves as an introduction to Hoodoo culture for viewers of a certain ilk. At one point Kate Hudson asks her friend if she means Voodoo and no, she doesn't. They are two separate things: Hoodoo is a set of spiritual practices conceived by enslaved people in the South. It mixes things from various African religions with Native American botanical knowledge. The film ignores the more religious aspects of Hoodoo for the mystical shit, conjuring spirits and protection spells and the like. I don't know a ton about Hoodoo, but I can't imagine "The Skeleton Key" is the most nuanced exploration it. It came out in 2005, though, so what are you gonna do?
Anyway, the story is this: Caroline (Hudson) is a hospice nurse. Looking for a more permanent gig, she accepts an offer she sees in a local newspaper to take care of Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who recently had a stroke in his mansion's attic that left him paralyzed. He has a wife, Violet (Gina Rowlands), but she's aging too and can't take care of all his needs. Enter Caroline, who immediately gets on Violet's bad side for … being a native of New Jersey and not Louisiana. A little odd, sure, but family lawyer Luke (Sarsgaard) convinces Caroline to stay and take the job. Soon enough, Caroline starts to believe Ben might be attempting to ask for her help, defense from an unknown evil. Meanwhile, Caroline discovers a room in the mansion's attic that even the house's skeleton key cannot open.
Would you believe those two story lines eventually converge?
They do, in a way that I didn't see coming but probably should have. I'm curious how this film would be received by 2021 audiences. In some ways I think the ending could be even more compelling now, but maybe with someone other than Iain Softley in the director's chair. There's a certain buzzy horror film from the past few years that I want to compare it to, but I don't want to give it away.
All right, now: Sarsgaard's accent. Holy moly is this thing all over the place. It might be the scariest thing in the film. I swear I heard it break three times in his first two scenes. I'm not one to care much about accent work, either. I only notice when it's incredible or it's awful, and, well, this one isn't incredible. But Hudson is pretty great as a smart and courageous nurse trying to help a patient by whatever means necessary, and Rowlands is good as the dedicated wife hiding secrets of her own. Hurt is also good in a mostly nonverbal role.
"The Skeleton Key" is also a quintessential 2005 movie. Sometimes the camera goes double speed for no discernible reason. There are quick flashbacks that are covered in a yellow-green tint so you know they're from way in the past. It's even rated PG-13! Remember when PG-13 horror movies were abundant and good? "The Ring" was rated PG-13 for crying out loud! If that came out today, it would be rated R and feature copious amounts of blood. I feel like everyone has forgotten how to make scary movies without gore or nudity. Not that I mind those things at all, but there's an art to doing it without them, you know?
Sorry, I'm getting off track. "The Skeleton Key" is swampy fun, and you should watch it if you want to have swampy fun.
HBO Max, rated R, 137 minutes
I was wracking my brain to figure out what I wanted to write about this week, what I could possibly offer you all that would blow your minds. All I could think about was "The Empty Man." But I already wrote about that. Oh well! I guess I'm putting it here again. When a movie digs into your skull as deep as this one does, there must be a reason. I think it's worth spreading the word on it once again. Maybe you missed it the first time, I don't know. Plus, it's now streaming as opposed to VOD, and it's now the perfect season for it as opposed to April. So I'm posting my earlier thought on "The Empty Man" in full below. I highly recommend you check out this compelling enigma of a horror movie.
"It says a lot about how 'The Empty Man' was released that I, an absolute freak who spends more time reading about Da Movies than anyone should, did not know it existed until like a month ago. And I only discovered it existed when one of my Letterboxd follows reviewed it by essentially saying, 'Why are people trashing this? It's good.' Of course I immediately went to read more reviews, and the vast majority were average to poor. I think it had a 2.6 out of 5 star rating on the site back then — and anything below a 3 is generally a big red flag. It seemed like this thing was unceremoniously dumped by 20th Century Studios for a reason.
"But I was intrigued. It was a movie from a first-time director (but a longtime Hollywood guy) in David Prior. It stars James Badge Dale, a classic Underrated Guy who always does strong work even when the projects he's in either suck or are good but no one watches them. (I will never forget you, "Rubicon.") And the film's elevator pitch — a small-town cop investigates the disappearance of a teen who had come to to worship the titular figure, who is something of an urban legend — was pulpy enough to entice. I put the film on my watch list, figuring it would be a fun-but-dumb slasher to watch at 1 a.m. sometime.
"Then something weird happened: A lot more critics I like also started hyping up 'The Empty Man.' And not in a 'fun-but-dumb' way, in a 'Why aren't all of you watching this right the hell now?' way. So I watched it right the hell then.
"Folks, 'The Empty Man' rocks.
"It's not at all what I expected. In fact, it's not a slasher at all. It's a slow burn of a horror movie where the scares don't so much jump at you, usually, as they do slither up your spine. It's not formulaic, and it's not haphazardly thrown together to make a quick buck. Prior obviously cares about the story he is telling, even starting the movie with a 20-minute sequence set in Bhutan that essentially functions as its own short film. And even though technically the film's elevator pitch is accurate, it's not close to all-encompassing. Throughout the film's 137-minute runtime (!), 'The Empty Man' touches on a lot of ideas, including the dangers of all-encompassing apathy and how easy it is to be manipulated by others if you're not confident in yourself and your beliefs. It is also about the bridges, both literal and metaphorical, that we encounter in our lives.
"It is a lot, OK? I haven't even mentioned that Stephen Root shows up for one scene to spout some philosophical nonsense (or is it?) that only he could sell. I haven't mentioned the film has one of the best uses of fog/the color white that I've seen. I haven't mentioned that it is jam-packed with Easter eggs and meta details; those who like to go on Wikipedia and Reddit deep dives will be left salivating.
"The film dips into a few different subgenres, but some of the fun of watching "The Empty Man" for the first time is discovering those genres on your own, so I won't go into those much. But even if I wanted to ruin the film's third act, I don't think I could; so much happens that I only understand 80% of it at most, and that's after having thought about it for weeks now. I can tell you this, though: The last hour of this film is the most a movie has scared me since 'Hereditary' in 2018."