The Skeleton Key is a 2005 American supernatural horror film 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 cinemas in the United Kingdom on July 29, 2005, and in the U.S. on August 12, 2005.
Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), is a New Orleans nurse who takes a position as a private hospice caregiver at an isolated plantation house deep in the bayous of southern Louisiana. The lady of the house Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), looks after her husband Benjamin Devereaux (John Hurt). With some prompting from the family’s estate lawyer, Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard), she accepts the position.
Caroline, through her curiosity, soon discovers that the mansion has a dark past. Finding her way into a secret room in the attic using a skeleton key that Violet gave her, she discovers various magical paraphernalia. Violet reveals to Caroline, shown through flashbacks, that the room belonged to two [Black] house servants who had been employed there 90 years prior.
The [Black] couple, Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and Papa Justify (Ron McCall) were renowned practitioners of hoodoo. The couple, as revealed by Violet, were lynched [burned] when it was discovered that they were performing Hoodoo spells with the children of the house owners. Violet also told her that they do not keep mirrors in the house because they see the reflection of the servants. Caroline, however, remains a skeptic.
In order to find answers about the hoodoo magic, which Caroline believes is affecting Ben’s illness in a psychosomatic way, she takes the advice of her friend Jill and goes to a local cleaners with a hidden Hoodoo shop to acquire a defense against the supposed Hoodoo being used on Ben. Caroline does not believe in magic, but she thinks Ben does, and making him believe that he is getting cured with magic might help. There, an old woman tells her the same thing Jill told her: that hoodoo cannot hurt you if you do not believe in it. The woman gives her various things and teaches her a ritual to cleanse Ben’s illness. She also tells Caroline about the use of brick dust, which is meant to keep away those who mean one harm. When she does the ritual, it returns some of Ben’s ability to talk, and he tells Caroline to get him out of the house because Violet is a threat.
Because of this, Caroline tells Luke about her suspicions but Luke rebuffs her idea. They then travel to a gas station that Caroline previously noticed to be lined with brick dust. There, a blind woman tells her of one of the most powerful hoodoo conjurations, the conjure of sacrifice. Caroline had previously discovered a record with this title on it in the secret attic room and feels as though it had something to do with Ben’s illness. The old woman tells Caroline that this powerful spell is one of immortality, in which the caster sacrifices someone and gains the remaining years of their life. When this is revealed to Caroline she begins to sense that Ben is in danger. Again, Luke tells her that the idea is absurd and questions her that he thought she doesn’t believe, to which she answers she really does not, but the people do and that accounts for something.
Caroline uses some brick dust to confirm her suspicions of Violet. She then drugs Violet and tries to escape with Ben. However, the gates are locked, and Caroline escapes by herself, promising the old man that she’ll be back. Caroline seeks help from Luke to rescue Ben. At Luke’s house, Caroline discovers clues leading to the revelation that Luke is in league with Violet. Just as Caroline is about to act, Luke captures her, ties her up and gags her to take her back to the manor. Caroline is held captive but manages to get free and scatter brick dust throughout the house. This enchantment succeeds in keeping Luke away, but Violet gets to Caroline.
After a brief struggle, Caroline manages to push Violet down the stairs and breaks her legs. With Luke and Violet now downstairs, Caroline flees to the attic to find that the room has been set up for some kind of ritual. She follows the instructions on a piece of paper that she snatched from Violet earlier and forms a protective circle around herself. However, the protective spell was a trick, and the ritual captures her instead of protecting her. Violet comes into the ritual room and explains that hoodoo magic only works on those that believe in it, and “they” have been waiting for her to believe. Caroline realizes that it was in fact she who was in danger. Caroline tries to deny that she now believes in hoodoo but cannot convince herself.
Violet pushes a mirror at Caroline, which initially contains the image of the little girl, then of Violet, and ultimately of Mama Cecile. The mirror smashes into Caroline, knocking her unconscious. Caroline then wakes up and walks over to Violet, who is barely awake. She remarks that it has become much harder for them to make people these days believe. Indicating that the soul of Mama Cecile inhabits Caroline’s body, and Caroline’s soul is now in Violet’s body. Also, Luke’s body is revealed to be possessed by the soul of Papa Justify. Ben, who was previously the host to Papa Justify’s soul, is revealed to be the real Luke.
“Caroline” gives “Violet” a liquid that causes a pseudo stroke so that she can’t reveal the truth about Mama Cecile and Papa Justify. When Caroline’s friend Jill (Joy Bryant) arrives at the Plantation, “Luke” informs her that “Ben” and “Violet” left the house to “Caroline”, thus leaving Mama Cecile and Papa Justify to continue occupying the house. The film ends with Caroline and Luke looking at each other helplessly, trapped in Violet and Ben’s bodies.
The Skeleton Key was filmed at the historic Felicity Plantation, actually located on the Mississippi River in Saint James Parish, Louisiana, not the coastal, swampy Terrebonne Parish. At the end of the movie, the aerial shot of the house and its grounds was actually done with CGI technology. In that shot, the house and the grove of trees surrounding it are real, but the swamp that seems to be on the verge of engulfing the house was created by the director for the movie. Behind the house actually lie hundreds of acres of fields. In reality, the house is not really run down; it was decorated with ivy, among other things, to set the tone.
The film received generally mixed reviews from critics. The film was a financial success, with a worldwide gross of $91,974,818. In the US it raised $16,057,945 in its first weekend, reaching number 2 at the box office, taking a total domestic gross of $47,907,715.