The Skeleton Key

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Some films are so predictable they’re like comfort food, such as the latest convoluted supernatural thriller from screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Scream 3, The Ring). This flick wants to be as rich and colorful as the Louisiana gumbo its characters always seem to be wolfing down — but it’s really more like a deep-fried Twinkie: regrettable with no substantial value, but oh-so-good in the moment.

Kruger wraps the film in a thick security blanket of clichés. The dewy-eyed, free-spirited Charlotte (Kate Hudson) is a stranger in a strange land: a Jersey girl transplanted to the humidity of New Orleans, where she aspires to become a nurse (dare to dream). Fed up with her candy-striper job at a local hospital, she answers a classified ad looking for hospice care in a typically spooky, 30-room swampland mansion. There she finds the stroke-addled Ben (John Hurt), his picky, demanding wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) and their attorney Luke (Peter Sarsgaard). Preferring a local girl, Violet carps, “She doesn’t sound like she’s from New Orleans.” (She doesn’t sound like she’s from Hoboken, either, by the way.)

Few things may be scarier than having to give the desiccated Hurt a sponge bath, but Charlotte’s life becomes even more of a nightmare when Violet hands her the object of the film’s title, a master key that will open every room in the mansion. Of course, our plucky heroine can’t resist checking out one especially creepy locked door in the attic, the one that might as well be labeled “Pandora’s Portal to Hell.” Behind it, she uncovers the house’s dangerous history, including evidence of ghosts, murder and the use of a Haitian variant of voodoo called, um, “hoodoo.” As Charlotte tries to uncover the cause of Ben’s ailment, she unwittingly puts herself in grave danger.

Like a drag queen’s Mardi Gras costume, these exotic trappings attempt to disguise the obvious: in this case, the fact that The Skeleton Key is the same pseudo-mystical fright show Hollywood has been dishing up for years. But director Iain Softley works up a formidable amount of atmosphere, and he admirably humors the script’s overheated, Southern gothic aspirations. He even gets in a few decent thrills amid the usual PG 13-friendly, sneak-up-from-behind shocks: All the empty rocking chairs, whistling tea kettles, candles and potions ratchet up the tension surprisingly well.

Softley’s actors prove they’re up for whatever nonsense the script throws at them. Bouncing around in rock-chick T-shirts and skirts, Hudson projects her usual foolhardy determination, and the effortlessly brilliant Sarsgaard slinks around looking like an evil dandy in his pinstripe suits. Representing the Geritol faction of the cast, Rowlands vamps it up in a turn that might have made Gloria Swanson proud. Meanwhile, in the context of the script, Hurt serves much the same purpose as Bernie did in the Weekend at Bernie’s films, but he does make an effectively creepy, demonstrative vegetable. The actors lend substance to what is essentially bad-for-you cinema; they even make the film’s obligatory twist ending go down easy. With anyone else playing these roles, it would be a sneerworthy conclusion, but with a cast like this, it’s like adding chocolate sprinkles to an already decadent dessert.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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