The Problem with Hospice Care in the Devil’s House: The Skeleton Key

Voodoo is an African religion practiced in the New Orleans area. In contrast, Hoodoo is American folk magic where practitioners use spells to “hurt the mean and heal the sick.” In Kate Hudson’s entertaining new film Skeleton Key, director Iain Softley uses the inbred, water-soaked, Gothic world of the Louisiana bayou to convey the horror of old age as a kind of judgment and trap. Hudson’s character Caroline Ellis nurses the elderly because she feels guilty for not taking care of her father before his death. She has grown disenchanted with the way the New Orleans nursing home where she works discards the personal effects of the people who have died as if they never existed. So, she opts to take hospice care of Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) in his creepy old blue-filtered mansion out in the swamps. Ben suffered a stroke on both the right and the left side, so he can’t speak, but something torments him, and he cannot stand to look in the mirror. His wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) does not care much for Caroline, but their family lawyer, smoothly played by Peter Sarsgaard, persuades Caroline to stay on reluctantly, even though all of the other nurses quit abruptly, and there is something definitely wrong upstairs. Violet gives her a skeleton key for the entire house except for a mysterious back room in the attic where Caroline is explicitly told not to go.

This may all sound cheesy and conventional enough, but I liked the oblique way the movie comments on how the aging of the large and influential baby boomer generation has turned many of younger generation into caretakers even as the media glorifies youth. The leading role suits Kate Hudson because, after the initial breakthrough in Almost Famous, she allowed herself to get typecast into moronic romantic comedies like Alex and Emma and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Simply by playing down her charms and not breaking out her mother’s (Goldie Hawn’s) trademark grin, Kate looks ordinary and believable. Once she learns of the Hoodoo practices going on, she does not let the near constant lightning storms at night, the lack of mirrors, or the doll with the eyes and mouth sewn shut up in the attic rattle her in her determination to help Ben Devereaux from what she thinks might be a spell instead of a stroke. Midway through the film, with the help of jittery black and white flashbacks, she learns of a African American servant couple named Momma Cecille and Papa Justify who were both summarily lynched and burned in the backyard when the white owners of the mansion discovered them practicing Hoodoo with their children up in the attic during a large party.

Certainly, an elaborate “conjure of sacrifice” has cursed the Devereaux manor in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, but the writer Ehren Kruger (who also wrote the highly influential The Ring) keeps the exact whereabouts of the evil unclear. Nowadays, after seeing The Sixth Sense and The Others, I tend to assume that everyone in the movie is actually a ghost, but that did not prove true this time, and I was surprised and impressed with the final plot twist. Instead of relying on loud banging noises and abrupt cuts to villains wielding knives in the bathroom, Skeleton Key earns its dread gradually. You can scatter brick dust along a doorway to find out who your enemies are. You can use chalk, sulphur, blood, and hair to create a magic circle surrounded by candles on the attic floor, but try escaping the paralysis of old age and the malignant after-effects of the racist crimes of your ancestors. Good luck.