'Skeleton Key': Unlocking a Few Thrills

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 11, 2005

Freaky people with their eyes rolled back in their heads?


Clanging noises in the middle of the night?


Locked doors that lead to rooms filled with spooky supernatural secrets?

Oh, triple-check. Yes, as voodoo-themed thrillers go, "The Skeleton Key" delivers on all formulaic counts, except one: It never serves up any truly nightmare-inspiring scares.

Still, even though it elicits as many giggles as gasps, "Key" isn't such a bad little movie. Kate Hudson bravely allows her mascara to run repeatedly in her role as Caroline Ellis, a live-in caretaker to stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who happens to live in a creepy mansion in the swampy outskirts of New Orleans with his overprotective wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands). Immediately, Caroline senses something weird about the place. All the mirrors have been removed from the walls. Ben's bedsheets have the words "Help Me" scrawled across them. And to paraphrase the lyrics of Carlos Santana, it appears the Devereauxs have got a black magic attic.

Like almost every psychological horror flick spawned from Hollywood these days -- from "The Forgotten" to "Hide and Seek" to 2001's exceptional "The Others" -- "The Skeleton Key" creates a mood of general foreboding, sprinkles in a few spine-straightening jolts, then caps it all off with a twist ending that, in this case, viewers may not see coming. It's all ultimately made watchable by the exceptional cast, which includes the reliably compelling Peter Sarsgaard, and a story that, despite some unsavory racial undertones, holds the audience's interest even when it veers toward the downright silly. It's the sort of movie that will make a great Friday night rental when it hits DVD shelves in a few months. As to whether it's worth catching in theaters, well, you'll just have to decide whether the spirits move you.

The Skeleton Key (PG-13, 104 minutes) -- Contains violence, disturbing images and some partial nudity. Area theaters.

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