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The Skeleton Key

Directed by Iain Softley

Written by Ehren Kruger

Starring Kate Hudson, John Hurt, Gena Rowlands and Peter Sarsgaard

Classification: PG

Rating: **

Kate Hudson leaves the urban jungle's breezy romantic-comedy territory to tangle with rattling doors, hoodoo (not to be confused with voodoo) spells and Gena Rowlands in The Skeleton Key, a stylishly made but disappointingly lightweight psychological horror tale set in the bayou.

The final 20 minutes, a breathless standoff between the leading ladies (in a creaky, secluded mansion in a torrential downpour with no electricity, of course), is pretty exciting and builds toward a nifty twist ending, but is barely worth the wait.

A fine, solid cast and fully exploited settings cannot make up for the by-the-numbers screenplay, which is filled with all-too-convenient plot points -- all too convenient because Hudson's character, as we strongly suspect, is being set up.

Hudson plays Caroline, a nursing student who gets a job -- less than an hour outside New Orleans, she tells her skeptical friend Jill (Joy Bryant) -- taking care of Ben Devereaux (played by a grizzled John Hurt), recently rendered mute and nearly paralyzed by a stroke. Or was it something he saw in the attic?

Ah, the attic. Devereaux's overprotective wife Violet (Rowlands), who strangely has hidden all the mirrors in the house, gives Caroline a skeleton key that opens every door except the one in the attic. Of course, the snoopy nurse eventually figures out a way to open it, revealing a room full of skulls, hoodoo bric-a-brac and mysterious vinyl recordings.

Violet, not quite the over-the-top character one would like to see Rowlands play, speaks mostly in punchlines. Eventually, however, she reveals the house's dark history (its wealthy, turn-of-the-century owners were throwing a drunken party one night and caught their two black servants practising hoodoo in the attic and strung them up) in a fast-paced story delivered in much too matter-of-fact a manner for the nurse-turned-detective's liking.

The only person Caroline can turn to with her suspicions that Violet has tricked Ben into believing he is under a hoodoo spell is Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), the handsome young lawyer whom we suspect is in on, well, whatever the heck is going on.

While Hudson holds her own with Rowlands, the pair aren't given anything truly juicy to chew on. Director Iain Softley -- now a safe distance from his last film, the Kevin Spacey dud K-PAX -- works the visual possibilities for all they're worth, but no magic, hoodoo or Hollywood can save the hackneyed The Skeleton Key.

Special to The Globe and Mail