Eerie mysteries unlocked in 'The Skeleton Key'

"The Sixth Sense" started a trend that few movies have been able to successfully replicate.

Six years after the "I see dead people" blockbuster was released, most horror-thrillers are hopeful to deliver a BIG SHOCK ENDING. Recent cinematic efforts such as "Hide and Seek," "High Tension" and "Secret Window" structure an entire plot around a revelation that: 1) inevitably disappoints and 2) causes the rest of the film not to make sense in retrospect.

Given that track record, it's refreshing to see "The Skeleton Key," a movie that gets the ending right.

The setup to this haunted bayou tale isn't particularly exceptional, but the finale is eerie and downright fascinating. The twist also brings a new level of depth to the material that preceded it.

That's all good news for actress Kate Hudson, who literally had not made a decent movie since her Oscar-nominated role in 2000's "Almost Famous." Hudson stars as Caroline, a New Orleans hospice worker who's become disenchanted with her profession.


Universal Pictures Photo

Kate Hudson, right, and Peter Sarsgaard star in "The Skeleton Key," a thriller about a Louisiana mansion and its dark secrets.

"It's supposed to be a business about caring, but they couldn't care less," she says.

So she leaves her hospital job to take a home-care stint in a remote part of Louisiana. Her patient is Ben (John Hurt), who recently suffered a stroke while in the attic of the 30-room estate he shares with his wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands).

Violet is protective of her home of four decades and doesn't much appreciate the thought of New Jersey-born Caroline roaming around the place, because she "wouldn't understand the house."

Before long it's clear that Ben is trying to escape the confines of his wife and the locale. Caroline also begins investigating a connection between the house's past owners and their penchant for practicing hoodoo, an Americanized version of voodoo popular among the black culture of the region.

But as the young lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) who is handling the estate asks, "Are you a nurse or a detective?"

Sure, the whole Southern Gothic setting for a horror film has been done to death - big surprise that the opening shot finds the camera drifting through an army of weeping willows. "The Skeleton Key" doesn't necessarily manipulate this setting better than, say, "Angel Heart." But the overall aura does help bolster the suspense, despite nothing much happening in the story beyond the stair step revelations leading to the central mystery.


Skeleton Key ** 1/2


Kate Hudson stars as a hospice worker who takes a private job caring for a stroke victim (John Hurt) in a decaying Louisiana mansion filled with secrets. The setup to this haunted bayou tale isn't particularly exceptional, but the twisty finale is eerie and downright fascinating in how it brings new depth to the material that preceded it.

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Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who adapted the masterful "The Ring" remake as well as its dull follow-up, "The Ring Two," admirably strives to keep things subtle. He and director Iain Softley ("The Wings of the Dove") don't resort to overblown special effects to galvanize the visuals, instead selecting old-fashioned techniques such as contorted camera angles and moody lighting.

The momentum only really kicks up once Caroline begins to apply the knowledge she has learned about hoodoo to battle her tormentors. Who knew sprinkling brick dust in front of a doorway can keep those who wish to harm you from entering?

One of the nice concepts that the filmmakers explore is that this type of magic "can't hurt you if you don't believe." At first Caroline tries to scientifically rationalize the results - if a patient thinks a spell has rendered him mute, then maybe he'll respond to a faux magic cure in the same way a placebo might work.

But she soon realizes there are things beyond mere psychosomatics that lurk in those decaying swamps.

Guess that mindset applies to the ending of the picture as well. If you can fully embrace the "Sixth Sense"-style switcheroo, then "The Skeleton Key" may haunt you long after the lights in the theater go up.


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