The smarter you are, the easier you are to hypnotize, according to the anonymous "they" who make such pronouncements. When it comes to hoodoo, the mystifying magic at the center of the thriller "The Skeleton Key," perhaps the same is true.
Film stars Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt and director Iain Softley all admit to having, at the very least, a sneaking suspicion that the African-based magic may have something to it. And when they came together recently at a centuries-old New Orleans plantation to discuss the creepy flick, anyone who didn't feel the presence of the unexplained in the humid Louisiana bayou would have to be, well, stupid.
"I think anybody who's truly cynical is really just truly fearful," insisted Hudson, flashing a warm smile. "I'm a real believer in the mind ... we have the power to manifest what we want, and it's not necessarily [a belief] in something that's making that happen, but if you need that tool to make it happen, then that's what you need. For me, I don't need the tools. I just sort of try to believe in my mind."
In "Key," Hudson plays Caroline, a well-educated, independent hospice nurse who believes in little more than assisting the terminally ill during their final days. After accepting a well-paying assignment in a mansion owned by the wealthy Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands) and her stroke-afflicted husband, Ben (Hurt), her character begins to suspect that the house has hoodoo hidden within its creaky walls.
"It's similar to voodoo, but it's more ritual, more black magic," Hudson says of the quasi-religion that won't hurt Caroline — as long as she doesn't believe it. "It's a little darker."
Hoodoo believers, both in the film and in real life, utilize a wide array of ceremonial props to carry out their beliefs. Special recordings and books are said to possess powerful incantations. Candles and incense carry great significance, as does holy water. And if you suspect that someone means to do you harm, sprinkling brick dust around the entryway to your home will prevent them from entering.
In an age when more and more productions are heading to Toronto or Vancouver, British Columbia, to save a buck, it's positively refreshing to see a city portraying itself. For Sarsgaard, the atmosphere was a necessary evil, one that allowed the Big Easy to wash over the actors' faces in every scene. "There's nothing like the little spongy effect that New Orleans has on you," the "Garden State" star insisted. "There's something about being in this climate, and in this place for me, that turns you into a bit of a dreamer. I've had some extraordinary dreams while I've been here ... like hallucinogenic dreams. It really is a place where in the right light at night sitting under a live oak, it really looks like it's alive."
In the film, Caroline is haunted by dreams of her mouth and lips being sewn shut as she sleeps. The realities of her waking life provide little relief, however, as the frightened young woman finds her days equally unnerving thanks to the horrifying, infrequent gasps of the near-catatonic Ben.
For a veteran actor like Oscar-nominee Hurt, sculpting a character without the benefit of dialogue is like sinking your teeth into a juicy hunk of meat. "For those of us who enjoy doing what we do, it's a big steak," Hurt smiled. "Losing the [body] equipment does make it more difficult, this is true, and also the fact that I didn't have any body language because I'd suffered from a stroke. I just had the eyes. I was completely reliant on Iain Softley to let me know whether or not he thought it was working."
A massive amount of the movie's fortunes have indeed been placed in the hands of Softley, a veteran director with an affection for putting a Shyamalan-like "twist" at the end of his movies, most recently glimpsed in his 2001 Kevin Spacey film "K-PAX." And no matter how advance audiences have responded to "Key," one consensus seems to be emerging — it's got one heck of an ending.
"I suspect it's going to be pretty difficult," Softley lamented about his efforts to keep the film's conclusion under wraps. "We've just got to keep our fingers crossed that people are not too motivated into spoiling it for others."
"The people who spoil the ending are probably just bored and miserable," Hudson remarked, issuing a warning to those with loose lips. "I mean really, when you think about it, it's like, 'Why? What was the point? You're spoiling it for other people.' "
So if you do see "The Skeleton Key," keep the ending to yourself. And if you can't resist the temptation to ruin it for others, you'll want to pour a huge pile of brick dust all over your doorway — because Kate Hudson might be coming after you.
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