That ol' black magic gets quite a workout in The Skeleton Key, which stars Kate Hudson as a hospice worker who takes a job in the moss-laden swamps near New Orleans. Still feeling guilty for not having been there when her father died, Hudson's Caroline is ready to go the extra mile for her new client, a stroke victim given the full look-ma-no-dialogue treatment by John Hurt. But there's something strange going on in this ramshackle mansion presided over by the stroke victim's ramshackle wife, Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands, summoning the ghosts of late-career Joan Crawford and Bette Davis). Things literally go bump in the night, for one thing. And the mirrors have all been removed. And there's a room off the attic that nobody's entered in years.
Isn't there always? Directed by Iain Softley, who wrestled Henry James to the ground in The Wings of the Dove, The Skeleton Key aspires to the high end of the horror tradition. Until the rousing conclusion, there are few gotcha moments, and the movie's soaked in atmosphere, there being no damper air than that of the Louisiana bayous. But I wonder whether this thing isn't a little betwixt and between ' not all that scary and not all that disturbing either. Voodoo having largely lost its ability to give us the heebie-jeebies, scriptwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring) resorts to something called hoodoo, which is like voodoo, only more so. The catch is that hoodoo only works on you if you believe in it, and Caroline doesn't seem all that impressed with, say, boiled chicken feet ' not at first, anyway.
Perhaps sensing that the Goldie-lite thing wasn't going over, Hudson tries a new persona in The Skeleton Key, and the makeover suits her. Caroline is a Jodie Foster kind of role ' a woman in peril who's quite capable of getting herself out of trouble. And Hudson projects a quiet strength that we haven't really seen before. In fact, she may project too much strength; Caroline never seems like she's in all that much danger. But it takes guts to go wandering around the attic of a house that's clearly haunted, and Hudson summons up the requisite guts. The movie's closer to a Nancy Drew mystery than to a horror flick, dangling before us the skeleton key to all those locked doors. It doesn't exactly frighten you to death, but it doesn't bore you to death either.