Curiosity exacts a nasty price in The Skeleton Key, starring Kate Hudson as a New Orleans hospice worker who doesn't know enough to let a locked door stay locked.
Relentlessly atmospheric - the house in which 90 percent of the movie is set, one of those decaying bayou mansions surrounded by humongous live oak trees and engulfed by hanging moss, deserves a co-star credit - The Skeleton Key asks a lot of its audience. Belief must be suspended repeatedly, and a few too many haunted-house conventions are recruited to provide the requisite heebie-jeebies. But the film almost redeems itself with an ending that's hard to see coming, not to mention a soundtrack of scratchy old Southern blues (with a bit of Elvis mixed in occasionally) that Beelzebub himself could groove on.
Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, a critical care nurse who quits the hospital when it becomes a little too impersonal for her taste. Caroline wants to treat her patients like people, wants to care both for and about them, and the best way to do that, she figures, is to work at the home of someone too critically ill to care for himself.
Way out on the bayou she finds just such a place, a once-thriving homestead now inhabited by an elderly couple, Violet and Ben Devereaux. While a stroke has left Ben mute and helpless, Violet seems more worried about seeing that her house stays happy than she is about her husband. Though put off by the old woman at first, Caroline eventually agrees to move in.
Wrong move. This is one bad house, infested with the evil byproducts of hoodoo, a branch of black magic native to New Orleans that's little understood, but much feared. Not that Caroline believes in any of this stuff; all she wants to do is protect Ben. Still, if a little black magic might help things along ...
Hudson can't quite come to grips with Caroline's passion; she never comes across as especially caring, simply dedicated. Better among the cast are Gena Rowlands as Violet, whose very accent sounds menacing; a nearly unrecognizable John Hurt as Ben; and Peter Sarsgaard as the way-too-unctuous lawyer who Caroline inexplicably sees as her protector.
The Skeleton Key careens all over the place for much of its running time, as Caroline tries to make like some combination of Florence Nightingale and Sherlock Holmes. And when it comes time to shock, director Iain Softley (K-PAX) falls back on the hoariest cliches - people appearing out of nowhere, fumbled keys, that sort of stuff. Still, the soundtrack is guaranteed to send chills where they'll be most effective, and the ultimate resolution is a real shocker. While it doesn't explain away everything that's happened, it comes deliciously close.
Starring Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard
Directed by Iain Softley
Released by Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, partial nudity and thematic material)
Time 104 minutes
SUN SCORE * * 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)