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On Writing
by Stephen King

. "The Skeleton Key"

The first question is, "how do you get a nice girl like Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) to go from nursing school to live-in caretaker on a decaying plantation mansion out in the boonies an hour outside New Orleans?" Well, first, you make her too feeling for her patients-- the kind of person whose human attachment causes her grief when she loses one, and the professionals around you treat a patient's death as a routine. Caroline is just too emotional for it.

So, she starts checking the help wanted ads, and winds up interviewing for a job at Violet Devereaux's (Gena Rowlands) place out in the Louisiana Delta. Never mind that her screening interviewer, Devereaux's lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgard), reveals that she would be replacing a girl who couldn't take the demands of the mistress, Devereaux, and probably a whole lot of other things that reside in the house. But, our little nurse's sense of adventure and challenge is only aroused by such talk.

Soon enough, she meets Violet, busy attending to her stroke-victim husband Ben, (John Hurt) trimming his hair out in the patio. Violet starts by being unduly critical of her applicant, accusing her of not being a Southerner (though there's absolutely no southern accent coming out of Rowland's mouth). Caroline, in her straightforward, honest way, cops to being from Hoboken, New Jersey, the "Garden State." Outsider or not, Devereaux like Caroline's looks and the job is won, though there's something outright sinister about the lady and her decrepit, multistoried house.

To cement the deal, Devereaux hands Caroline the skeleton key that opens all doors but one. That's the one up in the attic tower, a door that will command more than Caroline's attention. In fact, when she does devise a way to enter it, she uncovers some mighty strange leftovers from previous owners -- things like a recording of a strange rite, a book of diagrams that seems to be a guide to supernatural rituals. These, as Caroline's research uncovers, are the artifacts of a local folk practice called Hoodoo.

Becoming convinced that something spooky is going on with her patient Ben, who can't utter a word but seeems to be imploring her for help, Caroline follows the book to mix up a potion to counteract whatever spell he's under and proceeds to rescue him from the house. But wifey won't allow it, and when Caroline winds up at handsome lawyer Luke's place for assistance, well... things start to come to a resolution.

It's at once a pleasure to watch Kate Hudson in something outside of dither-minded romantic comedies, a fate her beautifully girlish looks destine her for. Horror films are wonderful when they're used as a vehicle to exploit the femme lead's physical and acting attributes, and this pic is no exception. Hudson deserves all the visual caressing cinematographer Daniel Mindel's ("The Bourne Identity")camera and lighting affords her. The most revealing moment is when she's naked from the waist up. We see her from behind, peering into one of the house's forbidden mirrors. A fresh and enlivening moment, abundantly accompanied by the standard of the endangered engenue venturing where no one in their sane minds would go.

This is not the sole plus about this horror flick. Iain Softley, (The Wings of the Dove") directing from Ehren Kruger's ("The Ring Two") script, studiously preserves consistency and that quality that alludes most films of the genre, plausibility. Well, up to what we may expect from the supernatural, that is. The writer of something as masterfully drawn as "Arlington Road" proves his mettle with well written characters and, despite a flood of cliche's to produce shock and tension, sticks to the restraints of the premise. This is a high level of horror fare and the kind we can get our imaginations around.

Rowlands is an adept study in deceptive evil at a time some might have given up on her being able or willing to handle this level of morbidity. I wouldn't have thought of her for the role, in fact, but I would have been dead wrong. Hurt, in a part of almost total silence, is the vehicle to express the horror itself. Sarsgard's cool and southern softness is perfectly attuned to his part in the psychodrama. In short, this is a cast that uniformly is putting out above their own norms of performance and I would suggest the director had something to do with it.

When you have the hokey end payoffs that proliferate horror flicks, such as Stephen Kings' "Second Window", the final twist of this Skeleton Key comes as a relief. Instead of being a typical example of non sequiter that distorts many a supernatural tale, the ending tableau here is of a piece with everything that flows into it and I laud the filmmakers who pulled if off with atmosphere and style. Mindel captures every dripping bit of it, swampy decay, hints of otherworldly magic, and all.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Gena Rowlands and Kate Hudson
Mistress of the house and hubby's caretaker
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