A first-rate concept for a spine-tingling tale of voodoo, hoodoo and possible hauntings in the swampy Louisiana bayou, "The Skeleton Key" is rendered impotent by bland, generic execution.
The wannabe chiller stars Kate Hudson as a New Orleans hospice nurse named Caroline who takes a job at a remote, run-down plantation manor, looking after a mute and paralyzed elderly stroke victim (played with eerie, deceptive vacancy by John Hurt) in what will probably be his last weeks of life.
Caroline is selfish, snooping and disrespectful (having an unsympathetic heroine is another of the movie's problems), so soon she beings sticking her nose where it doesn't belong -- opening attic doors that have been locked for decades and digging into the house's history. Doing so raises the ire of her patient's bitterly old-fashioned and superstitious Southern wife (Gena Rowlands), but more importantly it puts the skeptical Caroline on a path toward believing in the ghosts of lynched former servants that the old lady claims haunt the place.
Blessed with veins of sublimely spooky Cajun occult running throughout the script by Ehren Kruger ("Arlington Road," "The Ring") -- the thrust of which are that the more Caroline believes, the more danger she's in from the spirits in the house -- "The Skeleton Key" also boasts a handful of creative twists, some pointing toward a hoax, others hinting at something far darker than just ghosts.
These tempestuous possibilities should be downright terrifying as Caroline resolves to save herself and her stricken charge from the black magic (or maybe just the pretense of it) that soon seem to envelop the house. But director Iain Softley ("Hackers," "K-PAX") doesn't rise to the occasion. Adhering to a horror-movie template, he invariably favors cheap jump-scares (Hudson turns around in the dark and is startled by Rowlands as the soundtrack thunders for effect) over enveloping the picture in the mind-reeling and soul-rattling implications of the nurse's increasingly disturbing discoveries.
It's hard not to wonder what "The Skeleton Key" might have been in the hands of a director with a gift for visceral disquietude like Alejandro Amenábar ("Open Your Eyes," "The Others"), David Fincher ("Se7en," "Fight Club") or Darren Aronofsky ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream").
Rowlands and Hurt are the film's best assets, providing performances that earn goosebumps in subtle and insinuating ways. The talented, chameleonic Peter Sarsgaard ("Garden State," "Kinsey") is wasted in a conspicuously underwritten role of the old couple's kindly, albeit suspicious, estate lawyer. But all three of them are more commanding on screen than Hudson, who also never manages to make the nosy, insolent Caroline likable enough to care if she lives or dies.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th August 2005
Box Office USA: $47.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $47.9M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Studios, ShadowCatcher Entertainment, Double Feature Films, Daniel Bobker Productions, Brick Dust Productions LLC, MFPV Film
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 38%
Fresh: 56 Rotten: 93
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Iain Softley
Starring: Kate Hudson as Caroline Ellis, Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux, Peter Sarsgaard as Luke Marshall, John Hurt as Ben Devereaux, Joy Bryant as Jill, Marion Zinser as Bayou Woman, Maxine Barnett as Mama Cynthia, Fahnlohnee R. Harris as Hallie, Deneen Tyler as Desk Nurse, Ann Dalrymple as C.N.A., Trula M. Marcus as Nurse Trula, Jen Apgar as Madeleine Thorpe, Thomas Uskali as Robertson Thorpe, Jamie Lee Redmon as Grace Thorpe, Forrest Landis as Martin Thorpe, Tonya Staten as Nurse Audrey, Isaach De Bankolé as Creole Gas Station Owner, Christa Thorne as Creole Mother, Ronald McCall as Papa Justify, Jeryl Prescott as Mama Cecile