Jake Farley unlocks The Skeleton Key’s lazy filmmaking and thoughtless cultural appropriation.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off—this movie is kinda racist. Now, I’m not saying it’s Birth of a Nation or anything, but it does a remarkably thorough job of sidelining any and all black actors or characters while expressly drawing on traditionally black traditions and experiences for the sake of a, frankly, fairly crummy haunted house flick.
Allow me to explain. The Skeleton Key tells the story of Caroline (Kate Hudson), a bland young woman whose occupation is reading Treasure Island at dying old men. As our tale begins, she reads to one dying old man too many (this movie is actually kind of bleak, but not in a particularly suspenseful sort of way) and decides to quit her job at a hospice in the middle of New Orleans. She answers an ad to go out to an old swamp plantation house and take care of a man who just had a stroke named Ben (John Hurt, who I feel must have had a pretty easy paycheck with this gig—sit, stare, occasionally gape open-mouthed and look pained. At one point he does a pretty credible re-creation of his famous chest-burster scene from Alien). His cranky-ass old wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) chain-smokes clove cigarettes and frets about whether or not Caroline has tattoos.
Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key, since she’s going to be a live-in hospice caretaker for Ben. The key, in addition to providing the film with a title, opens every door in this giant 30+ room mansion…except for one, if you can believe it! Yes, in the attic lies a secret room, supposedly locked forever. Eventually Caroline breaks in, because of course she does, and it turns out it’s full of magical hoodoo stuff; jars full of cloudy liquid, dozens of mirrors and candles, weird writing, so on and so forth. Caroline asks about the fact that there’s a weird hoodoo room in the attic, and Violet provides Caroline with a long, gruesome flashback to 90 years ago, when a guy who was basically Jay Gatsby owned the swamp mansion. He had two “servants” named Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott), who were both “conjure men” (you know, hoodoo practitioners and such), and also they act as this ridiculous rich banking Southern stereotype guy’s babysitters. He has two little kids, a boy and a girl. One night there’s a big-ass shindig at the swamp mansion and everyone there discovers the kids involved in some kind of crazy magic ritual in the attic with the servants. The drunk socialites take it upon themselves to lynch and burn Justify and Cecile while the kids look on. It’s horrible. Ever since then, the two kids grew up in the house, until the ’60s, when they sold it to Violet and John Hurt, who’ve lived there ever since. Out of respect, they leave the freaky hoodoo room alone.
The movie, by the way, makes a pointed but somewhat uninformative distinction between Voodoo and hoodoo. That emphatic but vague description is provided by Caroline’s best friend Jill (Joy Bryant), who is apparently the only person in the entire world that Caroline knows now that her dad is dead. Oh yes, I forgot to mention Caroline’s dad (not Kurt Russell, thank god) is dead. This is her main motivation—she wasn’t around when her dad died and now she reads Treasure Island to other dying old men. Fair enough. Anyway, there’s also a hunky lawyer named Luke (Peter Sarsgaard). He hangs around and kind of leers a lot and berates Caroline but they have a little bit of chemistry going on, especially since he’s the only other character in the movie.
Ok, here’s the thing—this movie has a twist. It’s your classic, Sixth Sense-style twist, and it’s, honestly, pretty well done. If you want to watch this ten-year-old movie unspoiled, stop right here. We’ll proceed.
So Caroline gets freaked out by all the weird hoodoo stuff and tries to steal stroked-out old John Hurt away from swamp mansion (to put him in a better movie, one hopes). They fail and Caroline is so freaked out that she stumbles into the attic and accidentally allows her body to be taken over by the body-stealing consciousness of Mama Cecile herself. It turns out that Violet and Peter the Hunky Lawyer were actually Papa Justify and Mama Cecile all along. Way back in the day, they used hoodoo to switch bodies with the rich old plantation owner’s kids just before they were dragged away by the mob, and now they are body-snatching wizards who live in the swamp and Caroline just straight up falls into their net. You see, they faked the whole hoodoo haunted house thing just to freak out Caroline so that she’ll believe hoodoo is real and once she does, they can use hoodoo to steal her body, which they couldn’t do if she didn’t think hoodoo was real (yes, it’s a little confusing). They stay immortal via body-snatching, you see, and, like the hermit crab, they’re looking for a fresh new shell for Cecile. They get one. No happy ending, Caroline just is trundled away into the body of cranky-ass wife, aka Violet aka Mama Cecile, while Papa Justify and Mama Cecile laugh about it. The end. It’s an hour-and-a-half Twilight Zone episode, basically.
To be fair, the twist actually holds up really well on a second viewing. All the interactions between Peter the Hunky Lawyer and Violet the cranky-ass old wife make sense both before and after the twist. Good work, Ehren Kruger! Ehren, I should point out, wrote this film, along with three Transformers movies, Scream 3, and Reindeer Games. So, y’know.
[Editor’s Note: Also Arlington Road, which is better acted than it has any right to be.]
The problem, though, is this—the movie draws all its atmosphere and inspiration from traditionally black cultures in New Orleans, but entirely in the service of a story about a white girl, with no meaningful input from actual representatives of that culture. All the black characters in the film act as signposts and information dumps for Caroline rather than actual characters, most particularly the hoodoo supply store to which her friend Jill takes her. It’s run by an unnamed woman who gives Caroline a pillowcase full of stuff with which to cure John Hurt’s stroke. That’s it. She just forks over some wax candles, bottled water, dried thyme and general local flavor and ambiance. End of input. Likewise Caroline’s friend Jill exists largely to establish Caroline’s “normal” life prior to the start of the movie, and to expose her to the basics of the body-snatching underworld of New Orleans swamp wizards.
Meanwhile, the two most supposedly prominent black characters, Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, are mainly played by white people. During the flashbacks, when they’re in their original bodies, they don’t even get a spoken line of dialogue. It reminds me of is Disney’s Princess and the Frog, where they featured their first black “Disney princess”…who then spends most of the movie as a frog.
Honestly, I’m giving this movie too much thought. I know that. You know that. It’s just a mediocre, bloodless, thoughtlessly written, mid-2000s PG-13 horror flick with a decent story twist. Still. The positioning and minimizing of black characters and actors is what I found myself noticing most this second time through the movie. It’s too boring to do anything other than try and distract yourself by thinking about anything else, since all the jump scares are so telegraphed they may as well have been scored by Samuel Morse. When it’s not ploddingly attempting to startle you, it actively bores you with a dull lead character who accomplishes absolutely nothing except getting evicted from her own skull. Indeed, Caroline never actually even twigs to what’s going on. By the end of the film, she thinks Hunky Lawyer is a wizard’s apprentice or something, and gets completely gaslit and body-snatched before ever really learning the truth. Not exactly Marion Ravenwood. But still. It’s a shame that Violet couldn’t have been played by CCH Pounder, or Hunky Lawyer by Taye Diggs. At least then there would have been a visibly black character onscreen who wasn’t there just to further Caroline’s story. Might have been nice.
There’s not a whole lot left to say, I suppose. There are a few nicely spooky things in the movie. Papa Justify had a series of magic spells recorded onto old vinyl records, which becomes a plot point, and the scratchy sound of the hoodoo spell coming out of the record player is pretty effective. But then, any old scratchy record is kind of spooky, so that’s a bit of a mulligan for the movie.
I feel like I’ve been pretty harsh on this movie, but I should make clear—its worst crimes are laziness and thoughtlessness. It asks so little of you and provides equally little in return. It would be a good movie to flip back to on TV whenever Chopped is at commercial, but that’s about the strongest recommendation it deserves.
– The swamp mansion house used in the movie was also used in 12 Years a Slave, and was once an authentic sugar plantation. This is in no way a “fun” fact.
– The cinematographer, Dan Mindel, is also DP for the new Star Wars movie. That’s a much more fun fact.
– If this movie was a beverage, it would be room-temperature Diet Coke.