Kate Hudson's Caroline is a hospice worker aspiring to be a nurse in Iain Softley's modern supernatural thriller, The Skeleton Key.
A rich atmosphere is created from the setting outside and in New Orleans, a city embraced by the British-born director for all of its flavor. That includes the aural elements found in a hip-hop club where Caroline and her friend Jill (Joy Bryant) party for a night.
Caroline takes a new job as a caretaker in the film's main setting of the Devereaux plantation house in the swamp area as the moody backdrop is drawn around what is decaying and exotic.
She tends to Ben Devereaux (John Hurt of Hellboy), a stroke victim, in the mansion. Part of the creepiness comes from Ben's loving, yet intense aging southern belle of a wife, Violet, played with much vigilance by Gena Rowlands (The Notebook). She's often seen gardening, relating to the annual process. Rowlands does a fine job in keeping Caroline off-balance for most of The Skeleton Key.
Caroline's two contacts outside of her new isolated existence include the skeptical, admonishing Jill and the Devereaux's affable, somewhat ingenuous lawyer, Luke, another decent supporting turn for Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey).
The screenplay is by Ehren Kruger, who wrote The Ring. Much emphasis comes from the power of hoodoo, folkloric magic practiced in rural and bayou areas. Caroline's master key for the home opens up a secret room in an attic where mystical practices and haunting ceremonies were carried out. Krueger has camouflaged his American, untraditional ghost story with information that puts Caroline in a darker situation that has her questioning her beliefs as one trained in science.
Softley, the director of K-Pax, shows a firm hand in creating a lush, not too Gothic feel as the editing and physical look with flora, murky ponds and drooping branches conjures up images of The Ring, as well as the more sultry and psychological Angel Heart. He uses many loud bangs to augment viewer chills, besides having the seat kicked by the person behind you. And there are flashbacks that relate the legacy of Papa Justify and Camille, as well as moments of superstitious practical magic. The lensing by Dan Mindel isn't always suited for spookiness, but helps to counter the increasing restlessness of the story, prior to an unexpected, if overwrought conclusion.
Fans of Hudson may be surprised how charismatic she is in a role that adds to her maturity as an actress. She's totally committed as Caroline deep in the southern marshland and the feelings of disbelief or fear resonate even before the manic climactic events. And Hurt communicates much of what gives Caroline her conviction in an immobile state, even after Ben's improbable fall from the roof, and a peek in her compact.
Ultimately, The Skeleton Key tries to mirror the success of horror classics, but can't disguise the cliches that puts a glare of less tension and dread on it. It doesn't unlock what those besides genre fanatics or Hudson supporters will see as Southern stylized silly hoodoo.