“The Skeleton Key” is a strange movie. For about 90 minutes, it’s a routine supernatural thriller with all the usual mysteries and scares, something that seems instantly forgettable. Then it unloads a nasty little twist that suddenly throws everything that went before into a ghoulish light, making you re-evaluate all the clues threaded through the story.
The film has its fans, but I still can’t quite decide whether it is a clever ploy from screenwriter Ehren Kruger (“Scream 3,” “The Ring”) and Iain Softley (director of the most ’90s film ever, “Hackers“) or just bad filmmaking. After all, what is the point of constructing a puzzle box of a film if it only becomes interesting after the credits roll?
For the bulk of its running time, “The Skeleton Key” is a glossy slice of Southern Gothic that feels at once oddly timeless and deeply derivative. It got lost in the mix at the time of release among the emerging torture porn genre (“Hostel,” “Saw”) and empty Hollywood takes on J-horror shockers (“Dark Water,” “The Ring Two”) but now, with its handsome production value, it doesn’t seem as dated as any of those movies. On the other hand, anyone who has seen a supernatural horror movie over the past 30 years or so won’t be surprised by much of what comes before that final reveal. It leans heavily into all the well-worn tropes of the genre and relies a little too much on cheap jump scares, mostly provided by ultra-loud stings on the soundtrack.
However you feel about “The Skeleton Key,” you’ll probably agree that it has plenty to unpack in retrospect. Let’s take a closer look at how it unfolds and what it ultimately all means after the fact.
The Set Up
“The Skeleton Key” opens in a New Orleans hospice with care worker Caroline (Kate Hudson) reading to a dying patient. Disillusioned by how his body and personal effects are treated after he passes away, she quits and goes for an interview for a private gig at an isolated old plantation house. There she meets Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), a stern elderly woman who needs help looking after her husband Benjamin (John Hurt), who recently had a severe stroke while up in the attic. On hand to help smooth over the transaction is the couple’s estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard).
Violet initially objects to Caroline’s New Jersey roots because she “won’t understand the house,” but Luke talks her around and Caroline takes the job. After returning to the city to get her stuff, she stops at a backwater gas station where she notices a line of red brick dust across the threshold and gets spooked by the inhabitants.
Once at the house, things are clearly a little off. Caroline notices that all the mirrors have been taken down and Benjamin, who can’t speak anymore, looks like he has something very important to tell her. Violet also gives her a skeleton key that opens any door in the house apart from the creepy one in the attic.
Events take an alarming turn when Benjamin somehow manages to crawl out of his bedroom window one night, leaving behind a message scrawled on a bedsheet reading “Help me,” leading Caroline to suspect he might be in danger from his wife. The lure of the attic grows too much and she picks the lock, finding the room stacked with old ritual paraphernalia, including a diagram of a “Circle of Supreme Protection” and an old phonograph record entitled “Papa Justify’s Conjure of Sacrifice” dated 1920.
The House’s Terrible Past
The opening act of “The Skeleton Key” sets up several mysteries: What happened to Benjamin in the attic? What’s with all that stuff in the locked room, and is Violet telling the truth when she says she knows nothing about it? Who is Papa Justify, and what exactly was the ritual he recorded all those years ago?
Caroline tells Violent she’s been in the room and wants some answers, which means it’s time for a backstory flashback. 90 years ago, the house belonged to a rich and very mean banker who delighted in cheating the poor and mistreating his African American servants, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott). The attic room was their quarters, where they also practiced hoodoo in their spare time.
One night during a fancy dinner party, the banker and his wife realized that their kids were nowhere to be found. Eventually, they checked the attic, where they found the children performing a hoodoo ritual with the servants, who had fallen into a trance. Enraged, the father had Justify and Cecile dragged out into the backyard and lynched.
No charges were brought against anyone for the killings but legend tells that the servants took revenge from beyond the grave; after suffering financial ruin the banker shot his wife dead before turning the gun on himself, leaving the two children orphaned. The brother and sister lived there until they sold the house to Violet and Benjamin.
Violet also reveals that the mirrors were removed because the ghosts of Justify and Cecile could be glimpsed in the reflection, and she has scattered brick dust around the house as protection against evil. Caroline says she can’t be expected to believe the house is haunted, but her skepticism is already being eroded.
It Doesn’t Work If You Don’t Believe
Belief is an important aspect of Caroline’s eventual fate in “The Skeleton Key.” When Violet is sounding her out early on, the old woman asks her if she’s religious. Caroline says she tries to keep an open mind, which pleases her new employer very much.
She increasingly comes to believe that Benjamin was a victim of hoodoo and starts digging into it further. While she doesn’t believe in it herself, she accepts the notion that spells and superstitions can have a powerful psychosomatic effect on those who do. Working from a tip from her friend Jill (Joy Bryant), she visits a hoodoo grocery store where she buys some gear to perform her own ritual. It helps Benjamin regain some of his speech and he frantically warns her to get away from Violet.
She confides in Luke about the hoodoo items in the attic before they go to see Jill, who tells them that the old couple who sold the house to Benjamin and Violet both died of strokes. On the way back, they pass the backwater gas station again and Caroline makes the connection between the line of brick dust she saw on its threshold and Violet talking about sprinkling the same stuff around the house. They find out about the “Conjure of Sacrifice” from the mystic woman who lives there, a powerful spell that enables the caster to steal the remaining years of their victim’s life.
Back at the house, Caroline tries the brick dust trick on Violet by leaving a line of it hidden by a mat on the threshold of her bedroom door. Sure enough, Violet seems unable to enter, further convincing Caroline that her employer is really into hoodoo and plans to use the spell on her husband.
Up to this point, “The Skeleton Key” has been a fairly routine supernatural mystery. It is glaringly obvious that Violet is up to no good and Benjamin is terrified of her, and now we’re just waiting for the sting in the tale.
Caroline tries to get Benjamin out of the house but the gates are locked and Violet is on the rampage with her shotgun. She gets away on the river and goes to Luke’s office for help, but she discovers he’s into hoodoo too and is in league with Violet. He takes her back to the house where Violet wants to know where she has hidden Benjamin. Caroline attempts to escape, marking all the doors with brick dust, but Violet attacks her. After a scuffle, Caroline throws the old woman down the stairs, breaking both her legs.
Caroline retreats to the attic where she phones for help and then draws a protective circle on the floor out of desperation. Violet drags herself into the room and gives a final bit of exposition. The Circle of Protection is a trap, and Caroline has only gone and sealed herself inside it; what is more, she has come to believe in hoodoo, which was Violet and Luke’s sinister plan all along.
Papa Justify’s “Conjuring of Sacrifice” plays and Caroline, still telling herself she doesn’t believe, sees three ghostly images in a mirror: The banker’s daughter, Violet, and Mama Cecile. The mirror flies towards her and knocks her out, and when she comes around she has switched bodies with the old woman.
The final reveal is that Violet was actually possessed by the spirit of Mama Cecile, who has been looking for a new body since Violet has grown old. Papa Justify occupies Luke’s body, having previously been a resident of Benjamin’s. Now they’re a young couple again.
The Skeleton Key Ending Explained
“The Skeleton Key” revels in its twist, which isn’t completely original but is well delivered. Papa Justify and Mama Cecile have been body-hopping since that night when the banker and his pals lynched the servants for performing the ritual, and Luke and Caroline are their third incarnations. That means when the parents hung and burned Justify and Cecile they actually murdered their own kids, albeit in the bodies of their servants.
This calls into question the deaths of the banker and his wife. It seems more likely that Justify and Cecile took their revenge for mistreatment by killing them and making it look like a murder-suicide. There is also another ickier wrinkle to their switch into the bodies of a young brother and sister; presumably, they would have continued their sexual relationship, adding an incestuous angle to that first possession.
Almost as bad is the fate of Caroline and Luke as they are taken away by the paramedics at the end, looking hopelessly at each other as they contemplate being trapped in the bodies of two old people destined for a care home. When Jill arrives, Luke tells her that Violet and Benjamin left the house to Caroline in their will, meaning Justify and Cecile will continue to live in their home. Cecile may have already chosen her next body, too; she complains that she is sick of living as a white woman, and they both eye up Jill covetously. No doubt Jill will pop over to see her best friend “Caroline” in the future, which will give Justify and Cecile plenty of time to work on her beliefs before making another trade.
How The Skeleton Key Treats Racism
Considering the subject matter of “The Skeleton Key” and the twist it delivers, how does it deal with racism and slavery? As descendants of enslaved people, Justify and Cecile are little more than workhorses for the banker, and he values them so little as human beings that he has no second thoughts about lynching them for practicing hoodoo with the kids. The tricky subtext is that after years of enduring a white man using their bodies as cheap labor, Justify and Cecile reverse the balance of power by possessing the bodies of white people and using them as they wish.
As “Get Out” proved more recently, there is plenty of space in horror for exploring this kind of theme, but there is a cynicism to how “The Skeleton Key” exploits it for the sake of a twist. Papa Justify and Mama Cecile are initially presented as victims before they are revealed as the villains of the piece, but there is no sense that Ehren Kruger or Iain Softley regard them as characters beyond that. Of course, they are present the whole movie in the bodies of Violet and Luke, which in retrospect gives us a weird case of white people playing black people masquerading as white people. All in all, it made me think back to how Roger Ebert described “A Time to Kill,” which is set in neighboring Mississippi:
“One wonders why more screen time wasn’t found for black characters… Maybe the answer is that the movie is interested in the white characters as people and the black characters as atmosphere.”
Ultimately, “The Skeleton Key” has a similar attitude: It is interested in white characters as people and black characters as a plot device.
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