Kate Hudson’s Best Work?
The Skeleton Key is one of Hollywood’s most underrated and overlooked horror films. Starring Kate Hudson, the supernatural chiller breathes with creeping menace thanks to a perfectly paced screenplay, strong performances by the cast, and a moody Southern Gothic mystique set in the bowels of Louisiana.
The relatively big Hollywood production from director Iain Softley features a strong ensemble surrounding lead heroine Kate Hudson. Gena Rowlands is excellent as the elderly matron who clashes with Kate Hudson’s protagonist and John Hurt is brought in to play a mostly comatose man. Peter Sarsgaard is the weak link as a smarmy lawyer who serves as Kate’s love interest of sorts, his bad Southern accent undermining the character’s potential charm.
The Skeleton Key is one of Hollywood’s most underrated and overlooked horror films
The Skeleton Key is one of Hollywood’s most underrated and overlooked horror films
If you can ignore the obvious story parallels with producer Val Lewton’s 1943 classic I Walked with a Zombie, The Skeleton Key creatively approaches its PG-13 frights with surprising twists and direction which avoids using special effects for cheap scares. Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a hospice worker who takes a job on a decrepit plantation home deep in the rural swamps of Louisiana, conjuring up visions of the Old South. It’s a creepy setting which provides wonderful atmosphere.
A friendly estate lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) hires Caroline to care for the ailing Ben Deveraux (John Hurt) in his final days, an elderly man who has suffered a bad stroke and remains barely communicative with the world. Ben’s wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) gives Caroline explicit instructions about caring for the man, including a series of silly superstitious beliefs. Mirrors are forbidden inside the house and other arcane rules which make Caroline curious about the home and its owners’ past.
Caroline is given a skeleton key that unlocks every door in the dying mansion except one. Violet and Caroline have an uneasy, almost combative relationship. Inexplicable incidents begin unsettling the young hospice worker, leading her into exploring the home’s hidden areas. The clash of egos between Caroline and Violet neatly exemplifies a generational and geographic divide between their well-defined characters. Unlocking the deadly secret within the spooky house leads to hoodoo rituals, a dark history of racial injustice, and terrifying consequences.
When they talk about strong female leads in horror, Kate Hudson’s performance here is a first-rate example in the genre. Her Caroline is compassionate as a caretaker and proves her fighting spirit when she battles dark forces far beyond her control. It’s too bad Kate Hudson transitioned into mostly romantic comedies after making The Skeleton Key; horror cinema was potentially robbed of a great leading lady.
PG-13 horror rarely gets my blood racing but The Skeleton Key’s authentic atmosphere and well-executed twists pull off a potent brew of bone-chilling terror.
The Skeleton Key was dumped on Blu-ray in 2010 by Universal in a shoddy VC-1 encode left over from their HD DVD days. It was a primitive effort for one of the first films made from a 2K digital intermediate. Imprint’s release doesn’t differ substantially in overall picture quality, offering compression advantages and a more faithful rendering of shadow delineation. The movie needs a new film scan and a possible 4K work-up for more serious improvements.
Imprint licenses a 1080p transfer likely struck from that same, unaltered 2K digital intermediate used for the earlier HD DVD and BD with no new color correction. It’s a respectable, often impressive 2.35:1 presentation encoded in a fresh AVC job with strong bitrates on a BD-50. The film elements are in superb condition with no degradation.
This is not cinematography that leaps off the screen in terms of detail and sizzling color but looks great for a 2005 production made before the advent of digital cameras. What the video showcases is the film’s sharp definition and steady clarity. A couple scenes are on the softer side.
Color saturation and flesh-tones are healthy, though the mansion’s dingy interiors don’t provide many opportunities for a lively palette. Exteriors showcase stronger depth and dimension, highlighted by a hotter contrast. Grain reproduction is reliable, properly unfiltered if a bit lacking in refinement. Darker scenes visually hold up with quite good black levels, if below more recent standards. Maybe a hint of crushing, but nothing unusual.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio serves up a fine surround mix which is mildly reserved in splashy discrete effects. Immersion is a focus but not always the top priority. The track offers a tight soundstage with clean, intelligible dialogue. Excellent dynamics, decent bass and a nicely balanced score from Edward Shearmur give off a smooth presence. Rain and thunder pepper the atmospheric scenes, often convincing and realistic.
Optional English SDH subtitles play in a white font, inside the scope presentation. Secondary 2.0 PCM audio in effective stereo isn’t a bad choice for those without a surround system.
The Skeleton Key has a funny history on Blu-ray. Its studio Universal initially issued the film only on HD DVD, Blu-ray’s one-time Hi-Def competitor. That HD DVD had a plethora of featurettes which Universal conveniently left out when they finally issued The Skeleton Key on Blu-ray in 2010, after the format war had been decided. Mill Creek issued the movie a couple years ago as part of a barebones double-feature with The Watcher.
Australian label Imprint has picked up where Universal left off, carrying over all existing archival special features from the HD DVD on this new special edition. They’ve also added several new bonus features, including a 2023 commentary and two new featurettes examining the thriller.
#259 in the Imprint Collection, The Skeleton Key arrives in a glossy slipcase. The disc is coded for all regions. Outside of digging up star Kate Hudson for her thoughts, this is a nice Blu-ray edition for a mid-tier horror catalog from the 2000s unlikely to receive a 4K UHD from Universal themselves.
Audio Commentary by film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas – A new and mostly thoughtful commentary from a critic who has become better at genre commentaries given how she’s popping up on a wide range of new discs these days.
Audio Commentary by director Iain Softley – The original commentary made by the director for the initial home video release many years ago. Fairly typical subject matter, Softley discusses his desire to make a supernatural thriller and enjoying the swampy Gothic setting. There’s a chunk of strong technical chat while also delving into characterization and underlying themes.
Unlocking The Skeleton Key (15:05 in HD) – An interview with author Mikel J. Koven who smartly breaks down the film’s antecedents like I Walked with a Zombie.
The Swamps Are Full of Corpses: The Symbolic Southern Gothic of The Skeleton Key (15:49 in HD) -A new video Essay by film scholar Kelly Robinson exploring how the setting played a role in shaping the story.
Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary by director Iain Softley) – 16 brief scenes largely cut for time
Behind the Locked Door: Making The Skeleton Key featurette (05:26 in SD)
Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo featurette (04:16 in SD)
Recipe & Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo featurette (03:22 in SD)
Blues in the Bayou featurette (06:11 in SD)
Kate Hudson’s Ghost Story featurette (02:36 in SD)
Plantation Life featurette (03:35 in SD)
Casting The Skeleton Key featurette (09:15 in SD)
John Hurt’s Story featurette (03:31 in SD)
A House Called Felicity featurette (05:20 in SD)
Gena’s Love Spell featurette (01:20 in SD)
The Skeleton Key Theatrical Trailer (02:20 in SD)
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided by the label for review. This has not materially affected DoBlu’s editorial process. For information on how we handle all review material, please visit DoBlu’s about us page.
The Skeleton Key
An eerie and unsettling thriller set deep in the creepy bayous of forgotten Louisiana
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