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Universal Studios Home Video presents
"She said I wouldn't understand this house. Why did she say that?"
DVD ReviewIt's a pleasant surprise when a PG-13 horror film can come through in the clutch, because more often than not this current genre of hit-and-mostly-miss titles relies solely on effects and jumpscares to make their collective marks, as opposed to telling a story that is scary. There's either a lack of writing talent, or the studio formula machines simply demand more of the same old same old.
On the surface The Skeleton Key looks like it might be one of those, in part due to a marketing campaign that failed to really differentiate it from any of the others. First, there's a good old-fashioned spooky story going on here, coming from Ehren Kruger, who oddly enough adapted the domestic version of the PG-13 creeper, The Ring, as well as writing the mediocre The Ring Two. Kruger has crafted a fairly decent supernatural mystery for director Iain Softley (Hackers, K-PAX) to work with, but the most satisfying component is that it works well right on through to the very end. If I had a penny for every horror/thriller that came unraveled in the final minutes I'd be a very, very rich man.
Caroline (Kate Hudson) is a caring young hospice worker who gets fed up with the impersonal indifference of life and death at a nursing home, and takes a job deep in Louisiana bayou country at an understandably Gothic plantation home. She is to serve as a caretaker for stroke-addled, bedridden Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), whose gardening-obsessed wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) is adamant about making sure her husband gets his proper "remedies." Handsome Devereaux estate lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard) sniffs politely around Caroline, filling her (and us) in on the particulars of Ben's near-fatal stroke, which eventually leads to a creepy discovery in the attic, secret messages scrawled on bedsheets, scratchy old recordings and the fact that everything is not what it appears to be, or if it does appear that way, it's actually much worse.
Director Softley makes the most of the deep South locale, steeping nearly every scene with a dusty late 1800s feel, one that makes Hudson's modern day Caroline seem all the more out of her element. The story dabbles in the power of Hoodoo (a variant of the more popular Voodoo, involving less religion and more spells and magic), and Softley refreshingly avoids using any blatant cheap visual scares, instead allowing Ehren Kruger's story to be doled out in small moody parcels of strange camera angles, deep shadows, and unsettling sounds. It is the old school "less is more" approach by Softley that allows The Skeleton Key to work as well as it does, because it doesn't hammer us over the head with jumpscare after tired jumpscare, though in fairness there are a few, but somewhat underplayed.
Genre fans who might have glossed over this one during its theatrical run may want to give it a spin. It's atmospheric and even a tad unsettling in spots, and never feels compelled to make viewers jump in their seats with cheap, tacky tricks. This one doesn't reinvent the genre wheel by any means, but it is a surprisingly forceful supernatural thriller.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: A nice job from Universal on the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer here. Edge detail is a little soft, but it seems to fit the tone of the shadowy bayou story. It's a very clean print, and there is no evidence of any substantial edge enhancement to contend with. The color palette appears to be intentionally muted—save for some of the exterior garden scenesóbut black levels are solid throughout, which is essential for a film that spends much of its time in shadowy places or at night.
The Skeleton Key has also been issued in a separate full-screen version.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: A spooky movie seems to need an aggressive audio mix to sell the scares, and The Skeleton Key comes properly outfitted with an active 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix, available in English, French or Spanish. Dialogue is clean and clear at all times, with a broad sense of spatial movement across the front channels. Rears get featured prominently, and during Kate Hudson's explorations of the old house creepy sounds rise and move in all directions. The element that really stands out is the .LFE channel; it's a deep rumbler, and even garbage dumpster lids thud like a bass drum.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring American Pie Presents: Band Camp, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds, Cinderella Man
16 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Iain Softley
Extras Review: Director Iain Softley provides a commentary track, and the soft-spoken Englishman covers the expected bases: things like the allure of shooting in and around New Orleans, operating styles, using specific camera angles to create unease and locating the plantation used in the film. Of particular interest were Softley's comments about the use of sound, or more importantly the use of no sound to create mood, and how stripping away sound elements affected the impact of certain scenes in varying degrees. As an added trivial bonus, we learn the real purpose of plantation peacocks.
A set of 16 deleted scenes (21m:39s) is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen, available with an optional commentary from Softley. None of the scenes are particularly long, and Softley refers to the fact that most of them simply show more of the "i's dotted and t's crossed" in the storytelling (such as during the alternate opening sequence), but that the bulk were trimmed for the usual pacing reasons.
There are lots of other light extras here, though they're generally of the short-attention-span variety, with the longest running less than ten minutes, and that being Casting The Skeleton Key (09m:15s), in which Iain Softley waxes poetic on the acting chops of Hudson, Rowlands, and Hurt. Behind the Locked Door: Making The Skeleton Key (05m:26s) is typical EPK fluff, with Kate Hudson reminding us that when it comes to Voodoo and Hoodoo, she is "so into that". Blues in the Bayou (06m:11s) features music supervisor Sara Lord talking briefly about the importance of getting the right flow to the songs and music used, since it figures so prominently in the story. A House Called Felicity (05m:20s) shows the crew on location at the plantation home used in the film, with Softley expressing his adoration of the structure's character.
Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo (04m:16s) offers a quick history of the "spiritual connections to unlock the secrets of the bayou", and features interviews with a number of real-life practitioners. Plantation Life (03m:35s) attempts to encapsulate the hardships of what it was like back in the day, but the message here is that it was "hard and structured." Recipe and Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo (03m:22s) purports to want to show how make the tasty New Orleans dish, but the presentation is a bit gimmicky, so if you want a real lesson, look elsewhere
Lastly, there are three very short pieces, one each from the principle leads in the film. Kate Hudson's Ghost Story (02m:36s) has her relating a spooking encounter in an old house when she was a child; John Hurt's Story (03m:31s) has the gifted actor, in his character's makeup, reading an excerpt from a story in that wonderful voice of his; and Gena's Love Spell (01m:21s) has step-by-step instructions on how to use the magical powers of popsicle sticks to make someone fall in love with you.
Universal has issued The Skeleton Key in an amaray case housed inside of a thick cardboard slipcase, available as separate widescreen and full-screen versions. The disc is cut into 20 chapters, and features optional subtitles in English, Spanish or French.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsWhen released theatrically, The Skeleton Key seemed to get lumped in with all of the other recent jumpscare-heavy PG-13 horror titles, when it is actually an effectively moody and satisfying bayou country/plantation/supernatural thriller about the power of Hoodoo, Voodoo, and who knows what else. Dark and suitably threatening without gratuitous gore, the story delivers some decent spooky moments and comes through with a very strong final act, which is usually where films like this fall flat.
There's a lot of extras on this release, though none of them are particularly noteworthy except for possibly the Iain Softley commentary, but the audio transfer is deep, loud, and atmospheric.
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