Sunday, August 14, 2005

Studios need new Skeleton Key, this one is old and tired.

A Skeleton Key is a key that is meant to open all doors in the house. It has a master mold that fits any keyhole. The three act structure of film, serves as a sort of skeleton key which assists the writer in opening up the story. Genre conventions are another piece of architecture that guide the writer and cue him to certain necessary beats.

If you haven’t guessed already I’m trying to build an (albeit foggy) analogy here, one between keys and stories. All stories have similarities in that they use the same building blocks, there are only finite number of themes endemic to the human journey. However there are certain genres, particularly in the world of Big Hollywood studio films, that feel about as unique and inspired as a bowl of soggy corn flakes. Their stories feel predictable, with stale dialogue and tired stock characters. Sadly I feel the horror genre is one of the ones that in recent years has suffered the most, and The Skeleton Key is a prime example.

The beginning of the film is standard fare. Kate Hudson plays a young woman named Caroline, who responds to an ad for a job as a caretaker for an elderly infirm man. This man, Ben, lives in a creaky old house situated in the Bayou swamp land. Ben has suffered a stroke and the doctor has not given him much time to live. His wife, Violet is a colorful vintage southerner who is wary of Caroline, and is kept in check by her estate lawyer, Luke (played by an uncharacteristically tepid Peter Sarsgaard)

So Caroline takes the job and moves in to become Ben’s nurse. Slowly but surely odd things start to happen, and Caroline starts to nose around the place, using her Skeleton Key to unlock a hidden and ominous room in the attic. Turns out there’s some Voodoo, or as they term in the film “Hoodoo” (Voodoo is a religion, Hoodoo is magic? It’s all sort of unclear…) going on in the house. Caroline believes her patient, Ben, who is unable to speak or walk, is in danger, and she tries to help him as she searches for the truth about what led to his illness and what is going on in the house.

The problem with this movie is that it is too obvious. I think one of my friends was astute when she pointed out that toning down a few of the lines here and there, would have done heaps for making it less on the nose. Writer Ehren Kruger, (perhaps at the nudging of overeager studio execs) spelled things out about the characters and the plot along the way without much subtlety. For example, Kruger made a point constantly of emphasizing the fact that Caroline had lost her father a couple years back, and that while he was ill, she wasn’t there for him in the way she now wishes she was. This of course is meant to serve as a backdrop for why her character, an attractive and lively twenty five year old woman, has made it her life’s work to care for elderly dying men. The connection seems logical enough, but I don’t think it was necessary to constantly reference Caroline’s father, through dialogue, time and time again. Simple shots of the photograph showing her as a child with her father, and maybe a mention here and there would have provided a less clunky and more organic piece of character development. I was tempted at times to yell out loud at the screen “We get the picture!”

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, when I commented on the trailer, I think the concept of making a horror film about Voodoo is potentially very interesting. It’s not like a lot of the sleek new horror films involving evil electronics, or savvy psycho killers. It’s more complex than just a haunted house, or vengeful ghost. From the little I know of Voodoo, it seems like this incredibly intricate, variegated, cultural enitity, --a practice and religion that is not just black and white, but deals with both good and evil, and everything in between. Its philosophies deal with a sense of universality, the interconnectedness of all things, and karmic ideals. Sadly, very little of this is incorporated into The
Skeleton Key. The filmmakers choose to gloss over one of the major thematic points in the film, which is the relation of Voodoo/Hoodoo to issues of race as they exist in the south and as they once existed. The film briefly touches upon it, when Violet recounts the story of Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, two servants who were worked to the bone by their wealthy and callous employers. One night at a huge house party, the owners lost track of their children. As all their guests went searching for them, the owner of the house came upon the servants in the attic, who were performing some sort of Voodoo ritual in front of the children. Apalled that their children had been exposed to this sort of “devil’s witchcraft”, the father and their party guests lynched the two servants in their front yard. This portion of the film was done as a flashback, with Violet’s voice narrating, as Caroline listened, in a grainy antique looking black and white. In and of itself I thought this bit in the movie was well done, but unfortunately, within the context of the larger film it became sort of predictable and lacked thematic depth. It was just another “ghost story” about a rich mean old white man, who killed some innocent servants, whose spirits would forever seek revenge. Instead of using the story as a lynchpin to explore race relations, and the fear and concerns that are entrenched between the white and black members of society, the film took a sort of flip and inconsequential stance on the part that race played in the story.

Also I thought was the settings, of New Orleans and the Bayou which I think have great visual cinematic potential were grossly underused. There were a couple of fairly meaningless scenes with Caroline and her best friend, Jill (played by a pretty but blank faced Joy Bryant), in cheesy New Orleans bars, and a couple of brief throwaway segments of “b-roll” footage, haphazardly cut into the film, of the swamps and the swampfolk. Talk about a waste of location. When the film did try and foray into the “world” surrounding Caroline, it came across as forced and incongruent. Caroline stops a couple times at a gas station run by some “scary Creole folk” including a startling looking old blind woman. Later in the film Caroline gets some “info” from the old woman, but none of it really makes any sense. While I also liked the idea that Caroline goes into the Hoodoo shop to get some help in breaking the curse she believed was cast on Ben, the shop had about as much atmosphere and character as a Pier 1 Imports store. I wasn’t really sold on the fact that Caroline was delving into the depths of the New Orleans underworld.

While The Skeleton Key does deal with some elements of horror, such as the supernatural powers of voodoo, and spirits, it was really played more like a Thriller. There were a lot of fake scares, where Caroline was startled by a door slamming shut, or something being knocked over, but overall the movie really wasn’t that scary. In fact, the moment that I thought was scariest in the trailer, wasn’t even in the G.D. movie! The moment when Caroline plays the record and we hear the distorted words “We’ve been waiting for you Caroline…” was actually just a line that Violet says to her at the end of the movie, as we discover for certain (without much shock) that Violet and Luke are the bad guys, bodies inhabited by the old spirits of Papa Justify and Mama Cecile. The record that Caroline finds with Papa Justify conducting some sort of strange ritual, is creepy enough, but is never accounted for. How was it made? Why was it made? What sort of power does it hold? None of these questions are ever answered.

In fact as I watch the trailer again, I see there is a good deal of footage that did not appear in the film, --all the scenes showing Caroline and Jill attending a Voodoo worship session were not included, though I think they might have been interesting to see. Perhaps originally Jill’s character wasn’t such a throwaway, and actually held some inside knowledge about the religion.

For me the best part of the film was Gena Rowlands performance as the character Violet. She really harkened back to an older era of film villains, with a Hitchcockian sensibility, and made Violet, funny, scary, spunky and treacherous. Veiled through worn out mumus, a syrupy Southern accent, and old world beliefs, she hid her evil intentions with apparent physical weakness ane vulnerability which only made her all the most sinister. While her dialogue and character was written with the same handicaps as the rest of the movie, more than anyone else in the film, she really added her own spark to the role and brought it to life.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kate Hudson’s work, but she was fine. Peter Saarsgard was phoning it in a bit, and John Hurt did the best he could do with no lines or backstory. Noticeably poor I thought was the scoring and the soundtrack. There were urban songs when there should have been old south blues, and a twangy country guitar in the score that broke the mood.

All in all this was just another movie by the books that could have gone in an interesting direction. What could have been a dark immersive journey into Voodoo and the old South was a banal TV movie of the week, about a girl trying to escape a crazy old woman. Would somebody please make a well done and original horror movie? Please?! I don’t think I can take anymore of this mediocrity; it’s really killing the genre for me…..

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