We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The secret door in the freaky attic doesn’t do it. Nor does the knowledge that the last hospice worker high-tailed it outta there. And even when her new employer and landlady says, “The house is theirs as much as ours”—referring to some very dead former occupants—nosy nurse Caroline (Kate Hudson) never seems to consider leaving her crickety plantation digs. Of course, such boobery is de rigueur in horror films. The big surprise of The Skeleton Key—bigger than even that twist ending everyone’s talking about—is that it’s not much of a horror film to begin with. Sure, director Iain Softley (back to Earth after K-PAX) throws in a few of those dime-store jumps during his leisurely setup, and Ehren Kruger’s script is full of, quite literally, hoodoo. But it won’t have you hiding behind your hands like Kruger’s Ringu remakes. When Caroline agrees to become the caretaker of Ben (John Hurt), an elderly man who suffered a stroke while in the attic of this New Orleans home, she immediately makes use of the skeleton key that his tart wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), gives her to access all 30 rooms of the house. Violet pleads ignorance about the room Caroline finds behind some shelves, but naturally Caroline goes in—and, at last, at the sight of pickled body parts and hanged dolls, gets an inkling that something’s pretty wrong. It’s all indicative of African-American folk magic, a friend tells her, and when the supposedly paralyzed and mute Ben starts climbing onto the roof and writing “Help me” on his bedsheets, Caroline takes it upon herself to get him away from whatever’s haunting him. Hudson’s performance is as restrained as Rowlands’ is acerbic, and Peter Sarsgaard, as Ben and Violet’s lawyer, rounds out the classy cast. Among recent paranormal thrillers, however, The Skeleton Key is more notable for its relatively original and logical story, as well as for the way it settles into a mood of mild eeriness instead of going for over-the-top frights. It’s also absorbing and well-crafted, and it delivers an ending that’s satisfying and smart—and these days, in this genre, that’s nothing short of magic. —Tricia Olszewski