The Skeleton Key

(2005) ** Pg-13
104 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Iain Softley. Cast: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant.

Southern Gothic meets Cajun horror in Iain Softley's unfortunate haunted-house movie The Skeleton Key. White-chick Kate Hudson moves from N'Orleans proper to its swampy outskirts, where long-dead ghosts threaten to make matters miserable for the living, sort of like The Skeleton Key. As Peter Sarsgaard says, far too convincingly, "All I know is the checks clear."

Hudson's Caroline quits her hospital job because she's tired of the institutional indifference to patients. Caroline can't bring herself to toss out the personal effects of the man she just lulled into death (by reading Treasure Island). When she looks into an unbearably impersonal dumpster full of cardboard boxes that represent former human beings, she decides to quit that very day (you go, girl—be a part of the problem, not the solution!). Caroline resolves to be her own boss by hiring herself out as a hospice-care worker.

But wouldn't you know it? Her very first hospice is a haunted house, where two black servants were lynched over a misunderstanding during a ritzy party decades earlier. The house's current inhabitants are Violet and Ben Devereaux (Gena Rowlands and John Hurt). He's incapacitated and mute after a stroke, and she seems determined to keep him that way. Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key, as the house has more than 30 perpetually locked rooms, and before you can say, "Cue 'Iko Iko' by the Dixie Cups!", Caroline has snooped her way into the hoodoo parlor secreted in the attic, and not even estate lawyer Sarsgaard can help her.

Ehren Kruger's script has problems of construction that undermine too many of the ending's supposedly shocking twists. But the devilish details of the evil endgame (as incredible as it is) pay off the story quite well—it's getting there that's a chore. For as effective as Rowlands and Hurt are in their juicy, Hammer-horror-esque roles, the movie follows the bland Hudson as her character putters through the motions. The script suggests that Caroline is supposed to be dumb, but Hudson thinks she's playing a hero. Kruger (Scream 3) obliges by giving her a sassy, skeptical black girlfriend (Joy Bryant), ostensibly to offset the exoticized "hoodoo"-peddlers Caroline encounters at The Old, Rundown Gas Station ("hoodoo" is folk-magic, don'tcha know).

No matter how many times Softley (squandering the promise of The Wings of the Dove) shows a lock unlatching in extreme close-up or a shadow glimpsed in a mirror, he can't make the story very interesting until the truth comes out to play; even then, the final twenty minutes lean too heavily on the usual hide-and-seek mechanics. Softley generates brief interest when a character essays a surprise trip across the roof, but this scene has been a creepy-movie last resort for a while now (it was also the only grabber in this year's The Amityville Horror). Ultimately, The Skeleton Key is just bad hoodoo: don't go there.

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