Stirring up a humid Gothic mood and amassing a gifted roster of actors, “The Skeleton Key” is unable to ward off the nasty spirits of formula screenwriting. Recipe mixes equal parts Deep Southern hoodooand Stephen King lite in one messy gumbo pot, while undermining scientific reason for a few scares. Fright show tilts more toward psychological terror than the paranormal themes of most of the recent horror wave, but B.O. results will be similarly scary, with a good opening frame followed by a precipitous drop-off to a vid landing.
Like most of director Iain Softley’s work (“K-PAX,” “Wings of the Dove”), his latest film, centering on the clash between a hospice nurse and a dogged old lady in a possibly haunted New Orleans plantation home, looks fabulous and feels empty at the core. Much of the hollowness derives from a script by Ehren Kruger (author of “Arlington Road,” the pair of Yank remakes of “The Ring” and the upcoming “The Brothers Grimm”) so slavish to standard storytelling devices and plot points that it plays more like a Robert McKee class assignment than an organic, authentically told yarn.
Fed up with the hospital practice of treating deceased patients like cargo, 25-year-old nurse Caroline (Kate Hudson) answers an ad for a hospice nurse at a mansion in the furthest depths of the bayou. There, she finds aged homeowner Violet (Gena Rowlands) taking care of her stroke-victim husband Ben (John Hurt). Violet is instantly doubtful of Jersey-born Caroline, whom she says “wouldn’t understand the house.” The family’s sneaky-looking estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), urges Caroline to stay, despite past nurses having quit or been fired.
Caroline finds herself in a community infused with believers of the American folk magic tradition known as hoodoo (not to be confused, Caroline’s helpful friend Jill (Joy Bryant) reminds, with voodoo).
Violet gives Caroline an old-fashioned skeleton key that can open every door in the 30-room house, and Caroline finds an attic stuffed with hoodoo paraphernalia, including old recordings of a fellow named Papa Justify casting a “sacrifice” spell. One of several clumsy expository asides — this one from Violet — informs Caroline about the house’s history of murder, suicide and the lynching of house servant Justify, caught teaching hoodoo secrets to the owner’s children.
Ben aptly observes — long after it’s clear to auds — that Caroline behaves more like a detective than a nurse, and her visits to him mostly involve calming him down. Still, despite his supposed stroke, Ben manages to crawl out of his bedroom window and fall off the roof.
Reading Ben’s behavior and various clues as signs he’s actually under a vicious spell cast by Violet, Caroline bones up on hoodoo. Yet there’s a paradox the movie can never quite square: The folk magic works only if one believes in its power, but as a medical worker, Caroline trusts in scientific reason. Still, she reckons, if Ben believes in the hoodoo hooey, then anything that can break Violet’s spell may work.
Pic grows exhausted even while developing a more jittery tone (stoked by composer Edward Shearmur’s shock music) as Caroline meets Violet in a ludicrous pitched battle during a torrential nighttime rainstorm. After being drugged, pushed over a railing and down a long flight of stairs, the old gal is up for one more fight — leading the viewer to the conclusion that hoodoo potions must also include a dash of Wheaties.
At the heart of “The Skeleton Key” is a disbelief, not in magic, but in the power of movies to set mood. Pic’s dependency on a hamfisted plot handicapped by too much exposition and obvious character types works against the ominous atmospherics Softley, cinematographer Dan Mindel (working in crystalline widescreen) and production designer John Beard conjure up in infinitely more convincing and visceral ways.
Even the guilty pleasure of watching world-class actors slum it up in a summer entertainment grows thin after a while, starting with Rowlands, who not only never seems thoroughly convincing as a decaying Louisiana matriarch but is forced into some literally embarrassing positions. Working up some real tension and sweaty stress, Hudson takes a welcome break from her usually sunny persona, while more and more resembling mother Goldie Hawn as she matures. Hurt almost too intensely delivers the equivalent of a silent film perf, while Sarsgaard is allowed to telegraph his character’s real intentions much too soon.