At the Drive-in

‘Red Eye’ and ‘The Skeleton Key’

Earlier this month, I went to the drive-in for the first time in almost a quarter-century, best I can figure. (My family saw On Golden Pond and Continental Divide in 1981, if my memory is accurate. What drove my parents to take us to that, I’ll never know.)

The double bill this time was Wes Craven’s Red Eye and Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key, and I can’t imagine a better pairing for summer 2005. Both movies are short (85 and 104 minutes, respectively) and trim, and both are competent genre piffle. Neither would survive my typical level of indoor scrutiny, but neither sucked, which made the pairing perfect for a Saturday night outdoors with pizza and beer.

Red Eye has received genuinely enthusiastic reviews, which is surprising because it’s undeniably modest and still shockingly rote. I expected a claustrophobic thriller aboard an airplane, and I got a standard-issue psycho movie whose middle third takes place midair. I guess the inventiveness required by an entirely plane-set script was beyond screenwriter Carl Ellsworth, who does muster a good mile-high-club gag. Rachel McAdams is the best thing about the movie, playing a hotel employee whose problem-solving skills are sorely tested by a terrorist with very nice cheekbones. Overall, though, the movie is disappointingly earthbound — literally and in its lack of inspiration.

Ehren Kruger’s script for The Skeleton Key, on the other hand, is pretty terrific, in the rare way that its twist is wonderfully telegraphed, plays fair, and still remains surprising. Softley gives the movie that humid bayou creepiness, and Gena Rowlands and John Hurt are mysterious and unreadable, alternately harmless and threatening. (In fairness, Hurt is ambiguous because he doesn’t speak but two intelligible words the whole movie.)

So why does is The Skeleton Key still feel tired and slow? Well, it’s not that the movie meanders or is flabby, but it’s certainly not in any hurry. Too little happens, our heroine (Kate Hudson) isn’t imperiled until the final reel, and the atmosphere and decaying house are standard-issue.

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