This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
As I mentally review what happens in "The Skeleton Key," I think there may be a couple of loopholes, but to describe them would betray too much of the plot, which depends on a series of escalating surprises. Besides, a movie that goes to this much trouble to work out its cosmology must have the answers. I must have missed something.
Doesn't matter. The film depends upon atmosphere, shock and superstition; the logic of the plot is the last thing on our minds. It takes place in a creepy plantation house in a gloomy Louisiana backwater during a very, very rainy season. The district has something in common with every other horror movie set in the deep South: A ramshackle backroads gas station operated by degenerates who frighten and repel their customers. In the real world, motorists get their gas at shiny 24-hour travel plazas, many of them incorporating Taco Bells and sales on the latest cassettes by Jeff Foxworthy. Not in horror movies, where the Chainsaw Family lurks in the shadows behind the cash register and cackles unwholesomely about newcomers.
The visitor in this case is Caroline (Kate Hudson), a nurse who grows despondent when a beloved patient dies, and quits her hospital job and signs on as private care giver. Her first job pays $1,000 a week, which right there should send up a flare, especially since several earlier employees have quit. She meets a lawyer named Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), and he sends her on to his client, an old lady named Violet (Gena Rowlands). She has lived in the decaying mansion since 1962, "when we came over from Savannah." Now her husband Ben (John Hurt) has suffered a stroke and can't talk. But he sure can look like he really wants to tell Caroline something.
The big house has rooms Ben and Violet have never used. Caroline is given a skeleton key that opens all of them, except, wouldn't you know, a door in the attic. This door rattles loudly, as if someone is locked inside; the Self-Rattling Door is a variation on the Snicker-Snack Rule, which teaches us that in horror movies a knife will all by itself make a sound like it is being scraped on metal, even when it isn't. All movies with self-rattling doors and/or knife self-scraping sounds also contain Unexpected Foreground Surprises, when the heroine is terrified because a character (or a cat) suddenly leaps up out of nowhere.