Home > Reviews > THE SKELETON KEY – Edward Shearmur

THE SKELETON KEY – Edward Shearmur

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There’s something sinister going on down on the bayou in The Skeleton Key, the latest film by director Iain Softley and “Ring” screenwriter Ehren Kruger. Kate Hudson stars as Caroline Ellis, a palliative care nurse in New Orleans who accepts a job at a rural plantation house out in the Louisiana swamps owned by Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands) to look after Violet’s husband Ben (John Hurt), an old man who has suffered a debilitating stroke. However, as Violet sorts out some legal issues with the family lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), Caroline discovers disturbing evidence of old voodoo rituals up in the attic, leading her to believe that not everything to do with the Devereaux household is what it seems…

It’s been a long time since there was an interesting take on the old voodoo legends – probably since The Serpent and the Rainbow back in the mid-1980s – but The Skeleton Key offers up some clever ideas to go with all the familiar iconography associated with the ancient animist religion. Kate Hudson, in one of her first purely dramatic leading roles, is pretty effective as a young woman who finds herself caught up in a world she doesn’t understand. Similarly, Gena Rowlands is excellent playing against type as a faded southern belle with a secret to keep. Director Iain Softley uses the atmospheric Terrebonne Parish locations to great effect: the gnarled trees draped in cotton moss, the old French colonial architecture, and the humid feel of the swamp itself lends The Skeleton Key an authentic air of mystery and menace. In truth, the film isn’t all that scary: it’s more unnerving in a way which can’t fully be described. It gets under your skin and makes you uneasy without you realising why, and when the final revelation comes – which I won’t reveal here – it seems all the more shocking because of the work of Softley, cinematographer Daniel Mindel and designer John Beard had put in previously to set the right tone.

Ed Shearmur’s score is an interesting one. It’s quite unlike his recent work, being more concerned with ambience and atmosphere than rousing themes. Acoustic guitars and subtle Creole orchestrations dominate the proceedings, adding a level of musical validity to the setting, and although there’s no real main theme to speak of, Shearmur’s moody, slightly dirty-sounding textures feel great in context. When the tension rises and things get hairier, Shearmur resorts to the familiar combination of shrieking strings and orchestral stingers, which is slightly disappointing from a purely musical point of view (he’s more than capable of writing something less clichéd), but it is undeniably effective at raising the audience’s pulse rate. Accompanying Shearmur’s score is a well-selected mix of songs reflecting the local Cajun colour and history, including the familiar “Iko Iko”, and further works by artists such as Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, and others. The soundtrack CD on Varèse Sarabande is roughly a 50/50 split between songs and score.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Death Letter (performed by Johnny Farmer/Organized Noise) (3:39)
  • Opening Titles (3:00)
  • Come On In My Kitchen (performed by Robert Johnson) (2:49)
  • Barefoot Dancing (performed by Blackbud) (3:42)
  • Ben Escapes (3:12)
  • Do Watcha Wanna (performed by Rebirth Brass Band) (3:24)
  • 61 Highway Blues (performed by Mississippi Fred McDowell) (3:11)
  • Violet’s Story (2:28)
  • Hoodoo Woman (2:45)
  • God Moves On the Water (performed by Blind Willie Johnson) (2:59)
  • The Goldrush (performed by Joe Washbourn) (4:18)
  • Saving Ben (4:41)
  • Iko Iko (performed by The Dixie Cups) (2:04)
  • The Conjure Room (5:53)
  • Conjure of Sacrifice (performed by Walter Breaux, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Fawn Lohnee Harris, Eluard Burt II and Alfred Roberts) (2:40)
  • Thank You Child (2:04)

Running Time: 52 minutes 49 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6670 (2005)

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