The Skeleton Key 2005 Movie Scene Kate Hudson as Caroline Ellis performing a hoodoo ritual surrounded by candles and salt

The Skeleton Key [2005]

Welcome to the Deep South folks, a damp, mystical, and sometimes frightening place. A place where the old world is still very much alive, hiding in the darkness. The Skeleton Key is a simple and effective occult horror movie about a girl who stumbles upon a deadly hoodoo conspiracy. At this point, we should make a distinction between voodoo (or vodou) and hoodoo, because they’re not the same thing. Horror movies and pop culture popularized Haitian Vodou during the seventies and eighties. And this is the voodoo I’m most familiar with. The perfect example is Wes Craven’s occult masterpiece The Serpent and the Rainbow.  

Hoodoo sprung to life in the Deep South by enslaved Africans in the late 1800s. It blends Christianity, botany and old African traditional beliefs into a potent mixture that quickly spread across the US. With that out of the way, let’s really dig into this dark and suspenseful movie. Highly atmospheric, The Skeleton Key uses mystery to shroud it’s basic structure. We have an old creepy house, an even creepier but still humble elderly couple and a young girl inserted into this mess. This is basically a single-location horror featuring excellent performances that elevated it to a higher status.

The movie also explores death and everything that comes along with it since our hero Caroline is a hospice worker. In fact, the movie opens with a powerful scene where she’s reading to an older man who passes away in a matter of minutes. His family wants nothing to do with him and everything about him fits into a brown box Caroline was ordered to throw in the trash. I know all of this feels kind of heavy-handed but it still works satandammit. The huge rustic mansion in the swamp we will be spending most of our time in looks absolutely terrifying complete with the eerie swamp surrounding it.

Caroline Ellis is a young girl tired of working for heartless nursing homes so she decides to try something different. She answers an ad looking for a stay-at-home nurse in a remote plantation house in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. And right away she feels that something might be off with the job. However, keen to help out and make good money, Caroline decides to stay. Something that she shouldn’t have done…

The Skeleton Key is one of those horror movies that are effective only once, the first time you watch them. All the twists, some of which are predictable and some of which are absolutely bonkers and creative, will lose their power in subsequent viewings. What will stay though is that damp and dark atmosphere. And the supernatural concepts that arouse those primal fears we all have. A fate worse than death they often say. This still doesn’t make up for the lack of gore or even jump-scares that were sorely missing in this movie. Luckily, the cast stepped up and made this a much more believable experience.

All three leads were excellent, each contributing in a different way. Committed Kate Hudson, low-key John Hurt, mysterious Gena Rowlands and rational Peter Sarsgaard carried this movie till the end. I also want to add that I first watched The Skeleton Key when I was 23 years old and it scared the shit out of me. I guess that back then I was still not sure about the whole supernatural element of the movie. Especially since it has a basis in reality and, more importantly, psychology. They say hoodoo only works if you believe in it. And I went for it hook, line, and sinker.

Finally, if you’re looking for movies like The Skeleton Key, I recommend another dark and gripping single-location horror, 1408. It explores the supernatural world but without the voodoo/hoodoo component. If that is what you seek, The Believers, and especially Angel Heart will be the right choice.

Director: Iain Softley

Writer: Ehren Kruger

Cast: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant, Ronald McCall

Fun Facts: The mansion you see in the movie was actually surrounded by farmland and not creepy swamp. Using special and practical effects, the production transformed the fertile farmland into inhospitable swamp.


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