The Skeleton Key

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Like most movies that come out these days, “The Skeleton Key” is about a young woman who moves into a creepy house where weird stuff happens. What sets it apart is that the source of the creepiness is NOT a wet dead girl who crawls out of bathtubs. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to discover this.

The source this time is something else, though of course I won’t say what. But hoodoo is involved — not voodoo, which is one thing, but hoodoo, which is corrupt variant of it. Set in an old, rotting estate on the bayous of Louisiana, the film focuses on Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a nursing student who is hired by a lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) to help Violet Deveraux (Gena Rowlands) care for her dying husband Ben (John Hurt). Ben suffered a stroke and can no longer speak, but his faculties are still with him. With panicked eyes and weak gestures, he indicates to Caroline that Something Is Wrong.

Caroline knows this, though. She can tell by the fact that there are no mirrors anywhere in the old house, and that religious iconography fills the place to an alarming degree. Additionally, she was given a skeleton key that fits all the doors in the house — except one, to a secret room at the far end of the attic. What’s in that room? Why does Violet pretend not to know?

Directed by Iain Softley (“K-PAX”) and written by high-rent hack Ehren Kruger (“Arlington Road,” “Impostor,” “The Ring” and its sequel), the movie lays out its clues quietly, carefully making us think we’ve guessed the answer — and we’re right, except there’s another part of it that we wouldn’t have guessed. You predict some of the surprises, but I’d wager there are a few you won’t see coming.

The problem is that with only four main characters, the movie feels small. If there are humans involved in any of these mystical goings-on, the pool of suspects is disappointingly shallow, and it’s not hard to work out most of the details. But seeing old indie pro Gena Rowlands wallow in a straightforward potboiler is fun, and if the movie doesn’t exactly compliment your intelligence, at least it doesn’t insult it, either.

B- (1 hr., 44 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity, one F-word, some partial nudity, a little violence.)

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