The Skeleton Key
Directed by Iain Softley
Universal, opens August 12
The haunted-house frightener has traditionally depended on the impaired IQ of both its characters and viewers, and
The Skeleton Key's Caroline (Kate Hudson) has the emptiest head in town. A New Orleans hospice orderly hired by a courtly estate lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) to care for a mute, paralyzed "stroke victim" (John Hurt), Caroline never thinks to call in a doctor or a cop when the poor guy grips her wrist in a vise-like fist, scrawls "Help me" on his bedsheets, or escapes onto the rain-pelted roof of his manor-by-the-swamp. Tantalized by stories of century-old hoodoo intrigue spun by the patient's dotty wife (Gena Rowlands), Caroline investigates every creak, groan, and bump in the house, forever asking, "Is anyone there?" and discovering all manner of skulls, covered mirrors, and jars of pickled animals, each of which gets its own portentous orchestral thump and crackle of lightning. Creaky in its mechanics and numbingly protracted, this is basement B horror that fancies itself a prestige chiller. As she self-tutors in folk magic and writhes alluringly in her skivvies during her many nightmares, Caroline freely submits to the choke hold of superstition, when all she ever had to do was find another job.