Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. Cash Their Checks for Dire Horror Skeletons in the Closet

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Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. Cash Their Checks for Dire Horror Skeletons in the Closet

Neither Terrence Howard’s nor Cuba Gooding Jr.’s star power is near dazzling enough to salvage the nondescript supernatural horror story Skeletons in the Closet. Director Asif Akbar is a prolific indie filmmaker whose low-budget films (somehow) hook names like Tobin Bell and Randy Couture, but it’s quantity over quality. The executive producer of Amityville Shark House brings little prestige to Skeletons in the Closet beyond a one-and-done Marvel star and an ex-Oscar winner who was probably just shown the money, letting special effects unfit for ’90s basic cable be as good as it gets. Akbar’s ghostly Las Vegas tale lacks soul, polish and authenticity, which becomes apparent in record time as Howard narrates over a cheapo opening credits sequence of smoke overlays and a freshly downloaded Halloween font package.

Writers Koji Steven Sakai and Joshua A. Cohen establish a rather unenthusiastic and needlessly complicated story about demons, tarot readers and broken families. Howard stars as Mark, a husband and father doing all he can for his loved ones, whom we meet the day he’s fired from whatever job he thought would give him a raise. To make matters worse, his daughter Jenny’s (Appy Pratt) brain cancer has returned, and treatment cannot begin until someone foots the $50,000 bill. Mark turns to his once-incarcerated brother Andres (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and throws himself to ruthless loan sharks—but there’s more conflict afoot. Mark’s spooked wife, Valentina (Valery M. Ortiz), starts seeing visions of a squealing apparition with unknown motivations, adding “a possible demonic tether” to their problems.

It’s all, quite bluntly, a mess. Producer Al Bravo notches a story credit, while Terrence Howard and on-off partner Mira Pak Howard claim screenplay credits in some capacity, creating a distinct “too many cooks” discombobulation. Skeletons in the Closet isn’t very descriptive with its lore until it buries you in exposition, failing to establish proper backstories that feed into shady underground deals or the purgatorial plane of existence inhabited by ominous mystic Luc (Udo Kier, an ominous mystic). 

Akbar relies on stereotypical representations of black magic and spiritual elements—a snake around Kier’s neck, random cuts to a figurine of Saint Death—but struggles to connect the plot’s scattered dots. It’s not a difficult story to follow, but Akbar’s delivery trips over itself by jumping from boilerplate haunting beats to rejected Sopranos goons to the stuffy Hallmark drama of Jenny’s illness. And Akbar produces no style or substance to speak of as a director. 

No aspect stands out in Skeletons in The Closet. Howard and Ortiz bring zero vitality to scenes as rigid screen partners, whether Mark and Valentina buckle under the weight of life’s misfortune or are left jarred by inhuman interactions with Luc. The horror elements are dismally low-budget, which Akbar shows no ability to enhance. Mark’s journey is one of immense sorrow—the provider who can no longer provide—and Valentina’s discoveries about the entity camouflaged in a white dress should be frightening, but Akbar barely plucks a lone heartstring or raises a forearm hair. Without anchoring Mark and Valentina’s emotional cores, or drawing out any ounce of tension from their situations, the rest of the film becomes a see-through façade.

Worst of all, Skeletons in the Closet is an absurd eyesore with depressing special effects. Valentina’s pale-faced visitor feels laughably copy-and-pasted into locations, fading or wiping away like a PowerPoint graphic. A few scenes featuring raging infernos use exclusively animated fire, and we’re talking about worst-of-the-worst renderings of fake flames. These supernatural vanishings wouldn’t cut it on daytime SYFY programs. Purple light filters hackily denote Luc’s unearthly realm in a random black room; I’ve seen more convincing effects in Nintendo 64 games. One has to assume an unfathomable percentage of the budget went to Howard and Gooding Jr., and animators were left with lint as payment.

Skeletons in the Closet is a gigantic misfire that can’t even accentuate Las Vegas’ sinful, never-sleeping energy. If the horror genre were a neon sign, Akbar’s picture is a dim bulb. Nothing’s there to draw viewers in, and there’s no control from a storytelling perspective. It’s awkwardly paced, uselessly dull and I can’t confidently say the FX are trying their hardest given what’s peddled on screen. Skeletons in the Closet is a letdown—what happens in Vegas should have stayed in Vegas.

Director: Asif Akbar
Writers: Joshua A. Cohen, Terrence Howard, Mira Pak Howard, Koji Steven Sakai
Starring: Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Udo Kier
Release Date: February 9, 2024

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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