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Film / The Skeleton Key

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A 2005 Psychological Horror film directed by Iain Softley, starring Kate Hudson, John Hurt, and Gena Rowlands.

Caroline (Hudson) is a hospice worker who takes a job caring for Benjamin (Hurt), an invalid at an old house in New Orleans. Things rapidly go downhill as the old man's wife Violet (Rowlands) behaves strangely, a locked room in the attic contains evidence of hoodoo rituals, and she finds the poor guy desperately wants to escape...

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Caroline mentions dropping out of school to help out with some friend's band.
  • Agent Scully: Caroline is new to the area in which she takes her job as caretaker, and the lore and traditions of the region strike her both as strange and silly... At least, at first. As time goes on and she is exposed to things she has trouble rationalizing, she starts to believe and begins playing by the rules of Hoodoo... Which was actually the antagonists' hope, as it results in the loss of her very useful Anti-Magic quality.
  • Amoral Attorney: It seems that Luke is this at first, as he's in league with Violet. But it turns out he's really Justify, who stole the body of the real Luke, and Violet is actually his wife, Cecile.
  • And I Must Scream: A nasty potion is used repeatedly, that leaves victims with all the effects of a stroke. Caroline is made to drink it at the end.
  • Anti-Magic: Not believing in Hoodoo will make it useless against you. Caroline doesn't believe it until she starts following suggestions to ward off Violet, thus accidentally pulling herself into it....
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Cecile ends up possessing Caroline, leaving her stuck in Violet's crippled, mute body right alongside Ben (actually Luke, with the same thing done to him previously by Justify).
  • The Big Easy: Caroline lives in New Orleans and goes back there to visit Jill. However most of the movie takes place in the swamps, notably outside New Orleans.
  • Big Fancy House: Given that the Devereauxs' house used to belong to a rich banker - in the Old South no less - it's particularly grand. Though it is a little overgrown and diminished.
  • Black Magic: Turns out that the antagonists are using Hoodoo folk magic.
  • Body Surf: Cecile and Justify's method of immortality.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Zigzagged. Cecile and Justify are a married couple who had possessed the bodies of a brother and sister when the siblings were children. They had sex in the siblings' bodies.
  • Catchphrase: Violet says "fiddlesticks" a few times.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: The brick dust Violet uses in the house. Caroline remembers it and uses it to test if Violet means her harm. She then exploits the dust she had left in the doorway to get away from Luke in the climax.
  • Chekhov's Gun: It's mentioned at one point that Luke is helping Violet update her will. In the end it's revealed they left Caroline the house, so Cecile can move in.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Jill explains that the Hoodoo can't hurt you if you don't believe. It turns out the master plan is to make Caroline believe.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Violet. She owns the house but has all the traits of a creepy housekeeper. She even tells Caroline not to bother with the housework, since she's the only one that knows how. But then again she's really Cecile, who was the housekeeper in her first life.
  • Daddy's Girl: Caroline was one due to being raised just by her father. His death before she knew he was sick is a primary motivator in helping Ben.
  • Damsel out of Distress: Caroline is able to get away from Luke and Violet in the climax several times.
  • Death of a Child: Cecile and Justify take over the bodies of little Martin and Grace, implicitly killing them in the process. But if one gets technical, only the children's minds died in the bodies of adults.
  • Door Handle Scare: In the scene where Caroline is roaming around the attic, there is a close-up on a door handle and the doors starts rattling.
  • Dramatic Thunder: A thunderclap strikes just as Caroline's spell to make Ben talk works.
  • Equivalent Exchange: Sometime sacrifice is more like... an exchange.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Caroline walking into the Deveraux house when no one answers the door shows that she's quite prone to snooping.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: A lifetime of body surfing hasn't put a damper on Cecile and Justify's marriage.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Caroline's curly hair is worn straight as soon as we move into the third act.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • Being stuck in a body old and decrepit, unable to talk, helped by two "caring" people who at least will put you out of your misery soon.
    • Don't forget the servants switching bodies with you, then having your parents unwittingly lynch you and burn you alive — as young children.
  • Flyaway Shot: The movie ends with a shot of the house, as the camera flies away.
  • Four Is Death: Caroline seals her fate by creating a protection circle with four ingredients.
  • Genre Savvy: Apparently the reason why all of Cecile and Justify's bodies after their first pair have been white is that black people from Louisiana can almost immediately tell that something's up in the Devereaux house.
  • Grand Theft Me: The main goal of Cecile and Justify. They steal the bodies of younger people so they can extend their lives.
  • Hugh Mann: Happens at the end. Also the lawyer, now taken over, has to learn "lawyerism for dummies" to pass over even for his job. That hoodoo bodysnatching has some drawbacks... but like they said, beggars can't be choosers.
  • Human Sacrifice: A variation. The Conjure of Sacrifice does involve sacrificing another person - but Cecile describes it as "more like a trade".
  • Hollywood Voodoo: Somewhat averted, as the movie makes the distinction that the goings on are the result of Hoodoo, not Voodoo. Still lots of Black Magic and such to go around, though.
  • House of Broken Mirrors: The climax in the attic features lots of smashed mirrors.
  • Irony: Caroline at one point is ready to run away but chooses to stay because Ben needs her. It turns out he was never in any major danger, and she could have saved herself had she run away.
  • Mammy: Mama Cecile for Martin and Grace is a subversion, given that she's slim, attractive, married and a Hoodoo practitioner.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Violet, or rather, Cecile, oh so very much. Acting nice while hiding your true intentions? If you look at her previous conversations with Caroline, you would realize that every single one of them foreshadows about what she's going to do. And yet Caroline doesn't take a single hint before it's too late.
  • Missing Mom: Caroline says her mother left when she was younger.
  • My Car Hates Me: Caroline's car fails her when trying to escape the house with Ben.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Possibly the case with Papa Justify and Cecile, who took the bodies of Thorpe's children before they were lynched. It's not made clear if they are genuinely horrified or see it as a necessary setback to their plan.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Violet demonstrates in the third act that she's not as weak and docile as you'd expect a woman of her age to be.
  • Offing the Offspring: Grace and Martin were unwittingly killed by their parents.
  • Old, Dark House: The house has been built since at least before the 1920s, and it's frequently dark and shadowy.
  • Personal Effects Reveal: The eponymous key is found in one of the main character dead patient's personal belongings.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Well, an attic full of Hoodoo anyway.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The heroes accomplish absolutely nothing, and in the end, they suffer the same fate as all the other victims.
  • Southern Gothic: The movie takes place in a former southern plantation house, with appropriately creepy shots of the bayou and swamp. The house was once elegant but is now slightly decaying.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: It's said that Papa Justify's Conjure of Sacrifice was this.
  • Unholy Matrimony: Cecile and Justify, body-stealing hoodoo sorcerers, cold-hearted manipulators, and loving married couple.
  • Villainous Incest: Implied. Cecile and Justify possessed the bodies of a brother and sister in the past, presumably living together as a couple.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Caroline (a skeptic) initially doesn't believe in magic, but she teaches herself hoodoo in hopes that it might be the only way to defeat the hoodoo-using villains. That's generally the case in most horror films, where skeptics tend to meet their demise at the hands of whatever they don't believe in. But in this movie, the opposite is true: hoodoo is based on belief, and it really can't hurt someone who doesn't believe in it.


Video Example(s):


The Skeleton Key

The Skeleton Key has this feel, with the primary setting being an old, run-down plantation house in Louisiana, owned by an old, run-down couple. There's also a bit of Hoodoo mysticism thrown in for an extra creepy factor which later becomes a major plot point.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / SouthernGothic

Media sources: