The Skeleton Key

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The Skeleton Key
Skeleton key.jpg
Promotional poster
Directed by Iain Softley
Produced by Michael Shamberg
Stacey Sher
Iain Softley
Daniel Bobker
Written by Ehren Kruger
Starring Kate Hudson
Gena Rowlands
Peter Sarsgaard
John Hurt
Joy Bryant
Music by Edward Shearmur
Cinematography Dan Mindel
Edited by Joe Hutshing
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • August 12, 2005 (2005-08-12) (United States)
Running time
104 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $43 million
Box office $92 million[1]

The Skeleton Key is a 2005 American supernatural horror-thriller film[2] directed by Iain Softley, written by Ehren Kruger and starring Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard and Joy Bryant. The film centers on a young hospice nurse who acquires a job at a Terrebonne Parish plantation home, and becomes entangled in a supernatural mystery involving the house, its former inhabitants and the hoodoo rituals and spells that took place there. It was released in the United States on August 12, 2005.


Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a New Orleans Hospice Aide who takes the position as caregiver at an isolated plantation house in the bayous of southern Louisiana. The lady of the house, Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), looks after her husband Benjamin Devereaux (John Hurt), who has had a stroke. With some prompting from the family's estate lawyer, Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard), Caroline accepts the position.

Caroline, using a skeleton key that Violet gave her, makes her way to the attic (where Ben had his stroke) and finds a secret room. She discovers dolls, a book of spells, potion jars, and various other magical paraphernalia. Violet reveals to Caroline that the room belonged to two house servants who were employed there 90 years prior. The couple, Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and Papa Justify (Ron McCall) were renowned practitioners of Hoodoo and were lynched for practicing spells with the original owners' children. Violet also tells Caroline that they do not keep mirrors in the house because they see the reflection of the servants in them.

Caroline then believes that since Ben believes Hoodoo caused his stroke, she can use Hoodoo, or more specifically Ben's belief in it to reverse the effects. Taking advice from her friend Jill (Joy Bryant), she goes to a local laundromat, known to have a hidden Hoodoo shop, to acquire a defense for Ben. A practitioner teaches her a ritual with items to use to cleanse Ben's illness; when Caroline practices the ritual, Ben regains some of his ability to speak, and begs Caroline to get him away from Violet.

Caroline tells Luke about her suspicions towards Violet, but he rebuffs her idea. They travel to a gas station that Caroline previously noted was lined with brick dust, which she was told is a defense against Hoodoo. A blind woman tells her of the Conjure of Sacrifice, a spell of immortality, in which the caster sacrifices someone and gains the remaining years of their life. Caroline increasingly believes that Ben is in danger, but Luke belittles her fear.

Caroline uses brick dust to confirm her suspicions of Violet and drugs her to keep her out of the way. She tries to escape with Ben, but they find the gates locked. She flees the house by boat and seeks help from Luke, only to discover he is part of the conspiracy with Violet. Luke knocks her out and takes her back to the house. Caroline escapes and scatters brick dust, trapping Luke but Violet manages to enter. Caroline pushes her down the stairs and breaks her legs. Fleeing to the attic, she sets up what she believes is a protective circle, but is informed by Violet that she has simply trapped herself inside, as Violet had planned. Violet confirms that hoodoo cannot work unless one believes, and that she doubts Caroline's protestation that she does not believe. Violet then pushes a mirror at Caroline, which reflects one of the children, then Violet, and lastly Mama Cecile. The two fall unconscious and switch bodies as a recording of the Conjure plays.

Upon waking up, "Caroline" gives "Violet" a liquid that causes a pseudo-stroke so that she can not reveal the truth about Mama Cecile and Papa Justify. When Caroline's friend Jill arrives at the plantation, Luke informs her that Ben and Violet left the house to Caroline, thus allowing Mama Cecile and Papa Justify to continue occupying the house. The film ends with Caroline and Luke looking at each other helplessly, trapped in the dying bodies of Violet and Ben.


  • Kate Hudson as Caroline Ellis
  • John Hurt as Benjamin Devereaux
  • Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux
  • Peter Sarsgaard as Luke Marshall
  • Joy Bryant as Jill Dupay
  • Isaach De Bankolé as Creole Gas Station Owner
  • Maxine Barnett as Mama Cynthia
  • Fahnlohnee R. Harris as Hallie
  • Marion Zinser as Elderly Bayou Woman
  • Deneen Tyler as Desk Nurse
  • Ann Dalrymple as C.N.A
  • Trula Marcus as Nurse Trula
  • Tonya Staten as Nurse Audrey
  • Thomas Uskali as Robertson Thorpe
  • Jen Apga as Madeleine Thorpe
  • Forrest Landis as Martin Thorpe
  • Jamie Lee Redmon as Grace Thorpe
  • Ronald McCall as Papa Justify
  • Jeryl Prescott as Mama Cecile
  • Cristha Thorne as Creole Mother
  • Lakrishi Kindred as Frail Customer


The Skeleton Key was filmed at the historic Felicity Plantation, located on the Mississippi River in Saint James Parish, Louisiana, not on the coastal Terrebonne Parish. At the end of the film, the aerial shot of the house and its grounds was made by CGI technology. In that shot, the house and the grove of trees surrounding it are real, but the swamp was created by CGI. Behind the house lie hundreds of acres of fields. The house is not really run down; it was decorated with ivy, among other things, to set the tone.[citation needed]



The film received generally mixed reviews from critics, most praising the premise and atmosphere, but denouncing the script and particularly the ending. Review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes reported that 39% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 142 reviews.[3] Metacritic reported 47%, with a score of 6.2, based on 32 reviews.[4]

USA Today wrote that the film "employs intriguing camera angles to heighten some of the suspense. It's too bad the movie goes over the top and falls apart in the last third."[5] Stephanie Zacharek wrote in Salon, "Softley, working from a script by Ehren Kruger (The Ring Two), puts so much care into layering moods and textures that he doesn’t always scoot the action along as briskly as he should."[6] In The Seattle Times, Moira McDonald wrote that the film was "occasionally scary but more often silly."[7]

Scott Brown of Entertainment Weekly wrote that "For anyone zombified by creaky thriller clichés, Skeleton is a fine little shot in the head".[3] Manohla Dargis of The New York Times said, "One of the most enjoyably inane movies of the season, this faux Southern Gothic offers an embarrassment of geek pleasures".[3] Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle gave a mostly negative review of the movie, and said, "A well-intentioned horror film that is weighted down by stellar cast members who for the most part act as if they do not want to be there".[3] In her review with The Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten wrote, "Director Softley again shows his gifts for creating atmospheric milieus...Yet the movie, overall, lacks tension and suspense.[8] In Film Journal, Edward Alter wrote that, "Iain Softley (K-Pax) and cinematographer Dan Mindel make the most of the setting," but concluded that the film was, "a paint-by-numbers supernatural thriller that's more interesting for its locations than for its story."[9]

Jennie Punter in The Globe and Mail called the film, "stylishly made but disappointingly lightweight."[10] Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Jessica Reeves called the film "serviceable but ultimately disappointing.".[11] In his annual film guide, Leonard Maltin rated the film mediocre, stating that it was "well-produced and occasionally suspenseful, but populated by unpleasant characters and a story that moves too slowly."[12] In the annual DVD & Video Guide, Marsha Porter wrote, "A few good scares can't compensate for a sluggish pace, and the climactic twist comes as a surprise only because it doesn't make sense."[13]

Box office[edit]

The film was a financial success, with a worldwide gross of $91,974,818. In the U.S., it took in $16,057,945 in its first weekend, reaching number 2 at the box office, with a total domestic gross of $47,907,715.[14]


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