Anyone who grew up in the Southern United States has heard their fair share of folksy superstitions. In Texas, nailing a horseshoe over a door is said to bring good luck. Rocking an empty rocking chair in Mississippi invites bad spirits. And in southern Louisianan culture, an itchy left hand means you’re about to come into some money. For the most part, these notions are harmless; the average person finds no earnest credence in these old wives’ tales.
Through advances in science, society has largely moved on from archaic rituals and uninformed understandings of the world around us. But what would happen if people believed in superstitions again? Would throwing logic to the wind really restore power to folklore? Perhaps that’s all legends and magic need in order to thrive again — absolute conviction.
In the 2005 film The Skeleton Key, a New Jersey transplant named Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) learns some traditions die hard in the Old South. The hospice worker interviews for a job with a curmudgeon woman in the swamps outside New Orleans. The position — caring for the woman’s bed-ridden husband while living in an isolated plantation house — soon evolves into a quest for answers when she’s given a skeleton key that opens all but one room. Caroline suspects something bad is happening in the home. And unfortunately for her, she’s right.
Building A Mystery
Writer Ehren Kruger (Scream 3) is big fan of suspense films that contain mysteries and puzzles. They’re the kind of movies he likes to see when he goes to the theaters. However, The Skeleton Key was influenced largely by his work on both The Ring remake and its sequel Ring Two. With those two films being based heavily on Japanese folklore, Kruger was inspired to look to America’s own mythology for his next project. In other words, he wanted to write a ghost story that was “specifically American.” And what better place in America to set The Skeleton Key than in one of the country’s biggest melting pots — and to boot the supernatural capital — New Orleans.
Producer Daniel Bobker passed Kruger’s script on to British director Iain Softley (Hackers), who “loved it straightaway.” With a director on board, the Universal Pictures production would have begun around 2003. That is, until Kate Hudson announced she was pregnant. In the meantime, Softley took off for New Orleans to get a feel for the movie’s backdrop. There, he took note of the city’s distinct relationship with death. After all, the biggest tourist attraction in N’awlins is the cemeteries.
For Softley, it was essential that the movie was shot on location in Louisiana. The state’s innate belief system was important and otherwise irreplicable. On top of Softley getting to know New Orleans better, the production crew had to become knowledgeable in all things hoodoo. That way, they could make the appropriate props and set designs.
Making Yourself At Home
One of the most fascinating elements of The Skeleton Key is undoubtedly Violet and Ben‘s (Gena Rowlands & John Hurt, respectively) swamp adjacent domicile where evil dwells. This historic antebellum house is so ominous and imposing that it’s practically a supporting character in the movie. Softley’s direction is at his finest when he tours the Devereauxs‘ house. Using a variety of camera shots, he captures every potentially spooky nook and cranny. The close-ups of doorknobs coming alive or acting as eyes all add sentience. Framing the house with darkness and subtle signs of death — rotting flowers, deteriorating decor — only elevates the creeping terror at hand.
Although Kate Hudson’s pregnancy delayed production, the downtime allowed Softley to find a suitable location in lieu of building a house. The Devereauxs‘ eerie home in Terrebonne Parish is actually the Felicity Plantation in Vacherie, St. Joseph Parish. Filming was initially limited to the house’s exteriors until the crew took note of the surrounding fields and swamps. They surely would have lost authenticity if they had chosen to go the full studio route. Which is what would have happened had executive producer Clayton Townsend been unable to convince the Waguespacks, Felicity’s owners, to let them film there.
“[Director Iain Softley] captures every potentially spooky nook and cranny. […] Framing the house with darkness and subtle signs of death — rotting flowers, deteriorating decor — only elevates the creeping terror at hand.”
As perfect as Felicity was, it lacked a crucial component — a swamp in the backyard. The property was flat and surrounded by farmland. So, production designer John Beard dug several channels and filled them with water. Special effects including green-screening then improved the makeshift swamp’s appearance during key scenes.
Something else the production wanted when scouting for a location was an oak alleyway leading up to the house. Felicity had no such thing. They eventually found something close to what they had imagined at Evergreen Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. Beard and his team constructed a replica of Felicity’s external anterior and placed it at the end of the alleyway. This duplicate is prominent in flashbacks where the home is supposed to look less weathered, less sinister.
Cast A Spell
It’s natural for people to be suspicious when an A-list actor signs up to do a horror movie. Be that as it may, history has taught us that these anomalous roles are worth the risk. Bruce Willis tugged at heartstrings in The Sixth Sense; Nicole Kidman made us shiver in The Others; Kevin Bacon was impeccably vulnerable in A Stir of Echoes. Kate Hudson, on the other hand, was recognizable in the early 2000s, but not because of her acting chops. She’s a child of Hollywood royalty — her mother is Goldie Hawn and her stepfather is Kurt Russell — whose only acclaimed film prior to The Skeleton Key was Almost Famous. Even so, Hudson is still best remembered for her romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Raising Helen.
Iain Softley had no reservations when Kate Hudson was suggested for the part of Caroline. He went so far as to call her a “revelation.” Upon meeting Hudson, Softley was struck by how similar she was to the protagonist. The director found her directness in addition to her natural allure to be appealing for the role; he also noted she was a woman of gravitas. The Skeleton Key very well may feature one of Kate Hudson’s most mesmeric and wholehearted performances in her career so far.
“…the film wanted to distinguish the differences between hoodoo and voodoo […] What makes The Skeleton Key so appealing is its realistic approach to the subject matter.”
Very few young actors get to work alongside someone as talented as Gena Rowlands. The Skeleton Key may seem like “a step down” for Rowlands, but her she’s utterly compelling as the inscrutable Violet Devereaux. When reviewing the dailies, Softley and his crew were consistently impressed with Rowlands. Another seasoned actor might phone it in when cast in a genre film. This was most certainly not the case with Gena Rowlands.
Considering how his character of Ben Devereaux didn’t have more than a handful of lines in the entire movie, John Hurt (Alien) achieved something other less competent actors wouldn’t. He channeled all of his emotions through adept guttural movements. His physicality more than compensated for Ben‘s near quietude.
Joy Bryant’s Jill was the voice of reason in the story. As such, she said what the audience was likely thinking every time Caroline stuck her nose where it didn’t belong. Her natural approach to an otherwise underused character is in good form. And Peter Sarsgaard cleverly portrays lawyer Luke with sparse indication as to how he’s connected to the overarching mystery.
Do You Believe in Magic?
With The Skeleton Key underlining hoodoo — something infrequently discussed in mainstream media — New Orleanian expert Catherine “Cat” Yronwode was brought in to maintain accuracy whenever possible. Foremost, the film wanted to distinguish the differences between hoodoo and voodoo. For starters, voodoo is an African religion brought to New Orleans by Haitian slaves, whereas hoodoo is a type of folk magic. To be more specific, hoodoo is an amalgam of multiple African religious practices created and used by enslaved Africans in the New World. There are also influences from Native American, European, and Jewish cultures.
What makes The Skeleton Key so appealing is its realistic approach to the subject matter. Another director would have let the material get away from itself; Softley restricted himself from making something plainly fantastical. At one point, there’s enough ambiguity where one could argue this situation isn’t so far-fetched. Which is partly why the finale reverberates with audiences.
Crimes of The Past
In Behind the Locked Door: The Making of The Skeleton Key, writer Ehren Kruger points out how all ghost stories are about spirits seeking retribution. Other movies may tiptoe around the unsavory history of slavery, but Kruger’s is not one of them. Nor is it some kind of revisionist story. Albeit Kruger highlights just one fictional atrocity in his script, he still manages to convey the unquestionable injustice of it and other unseen crimes from the same time period.
Not everyone was satisfied with the film’s depiction of hoodoo as a means of soul-to-soul transference. Some argued it was simply Hollywood’s ignorant idea of what hoodoo is. In Kameelah L. Martin’s scholarly essay — “Caroline’s Nightmare: The Skeleton Key as Visual Echo of Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales” — the African-American Studies and English professor says Kruger’s script is a spiritual continuation of socio-political author Chestnutt’s work. In Chestnutt’s career, he wrote about the complex race relations happening in a post-Civil War South. Martin points out that The Skeleton Key communicates “the horrors of slavery and racial hatred are still haunting” our society.
“…all ghost stories are about spirits seeking retribution.”
Martin adds that in Chestnutt’s famous 1899 collection of short stories called The Conjure Woman, one entry titled “Mars Jeems’ Nightmare” could be a source of inspiration for Kruger’s The Skeleton Key. In the piece, the merciless title character is hexed by a local conjure woman. Chestnutt was comparatively more subtle in his writing than Kruger, though. The Skeleton Key is blunt and has no qualms with showing the characters of Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) as anything but “contented” slaves.
It’s astounding to see a major studio-made and very commercial picture be so frank and unapologetic about the atrocities of enslavement. Especially in the early 2000s, a period of movie-making that wasn’t always the most sensitive or accountable. In today’s social climate, self-awareness and advocacy for civil rights is common at all levels of society; the movie industry is a reflection of this urgency for discussion and activism. Nevertheless, The Skeleton Key isn’t just another run-of-the-mill suspenser. It’s a potent and riveting example of socially conscious horror.
END OF SPOILERS
There was a noticeable uptick in violence for the sake of violence in mid-2000s horror. And movies like Hostel, Saw II, and Wolf Creek were at the forefront of this new wave of visual sadism. In turn, other scare-makers were capitalizing on the open freedom to explore gore. That’s not to say we didn’t have less brutal horrors at the same time, though. Films such as An American Haunting, the Dark Water remake, Hide and Seek, and The Orphanage provided less aggressive alternatives for audiences.
Then comes a movie virtually devoid of splatter other than one bone-cracking moment. The film is instead soaked in mystery and intrigue. The trailers could have been misleading but rest assured, The Skeleton Key is not only what it advertised, it’s also one of the most underrated horror films from the aughts.
This rural chiller has the bold audacity to show us how cruel the world can be. It lobs a scathing blow to several characters with undue severity. Anyone who pays attention throughout the movie will probably figure the twist out early on. That shouldn’t deter someone from enjoying the story and performances, or finding the journey gainful in other ways.
“….one of the most underrated horror films from the aughts.”
Critic Leonard Maltin said the movie moves “too slowly” in spite of some good production values; Stephanie Zacharek complained director Iain Softley’s focus on aesthetics affected the pacing. It’s true The Skeleton Key isn’t the most brisk watch for anyone accustom to more breakneck offerings in contemporary horror. There’s a lot of scrabbling about before we reach that verily stupendous payoff of an ending. Yet what some people interpret as narrative ambling is really attentive exposition. As a result, audiences are treated to a layered, supernatural tale of the Southern Gothic persuasion.