The Skeleton Key (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
That such a good cast was assembled for The Skeleton Key, basically a silly horror film, is pretty amazing. Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt and Peter Sarsgaard act their socks off through some decent and some ridiculous scenes, proving they can be appealing even when the material is substandard.
Written by Ehren Kruger, screenwriter of the American version of The Ring series, and directed by Iain Softley (Wings of the Dove, K-MAX), this atmospheric piece of filmmaking asks the audience to suspend disbelief for a trip to the southern Louisiana swamps and an exploration of hoodoo -- folk magic carefully distinguished from voodoo by the film's resident expert.
Hudson plays Caroline, a Jersey girl in New Orleans for college, who works as a hospice care aide. She is disillusioned with the cold, institutional nature of the death business and answers a job ad in Terrebonne Parish (read: gator country), caring for a dying man at $1,000 a week, the first tip-off that this movie resides in la-la land.
Tip-off No. 2: When she stops for gasoline at a rusty old station en route to her new employers' crumbling mansion, Caroline is affronted by a scary old blind woman with milky eyes and her shirtless, hostile son, a shiny black man who lets her know outsiders are not welcome in the swamp.
Tip-off No. 3: At Ben and Violet Devereux's crumbling mansion home, surrounded by gnarly live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, candles flicker in the windows. The rocking chair on the front porch rocks itself. And when Caroline is ushered to her room, she discovers that all the mirrors have been removed from the walls.
Ben, a wonderfully wrinkled and ruined John Hurt, and Violet, the great Gena Rowlands, appear innocent enough at first, but Caroline's doubts soon surface. Ben clutches her arm one night in a death grip. He scribbles "Help Me" on his sheets. Though wheelchair-bound and unable to speak, he miraculously climbs out his window onto the roof one rainy night, trying to escape.
Relatively quickly, Caroline comes to suspect that Violet wants Ben to die and that she's using hoodoo -- the tools of which reside behind a locked door in the attic -- to mess with his mind.
Caroline is smart, sassy and brave, boldly using her skeleton key to open the doors to all kinds of forbidden rooms, no matter what scary noises or bottled organs lurk behind them. And Softley is smart enough to include many scenes of her running around in her underwear, her tight, efficient body working overtime in cotton bikinis and stretch camisoles. Indeed, Hudson in her underwear is the only tight thing about this flick.
A brief foray into the mansion's past, including a lynching of two black servants witnessed by a bunch of drunken rich white folks, gives the story a touch of historic depth, but not enough. The fun begins really late when Rowlands starts hacking away at a barely plucked chicken in her filthy kitchen, and Hudson hurls her over the banister.
Telling any more of the plot's inexplicable twists would ruin the suspense for those interested in seeing Kate Hudson in her skivvies -- movie magic in the face of some really messed-up hoodoo.
-- Kathryn Eastburn