Caroline (Hudson) is a hospice nurse who goes from one terminally ill patient to another. The Devereauxs--stroke victim Ben (John Hurt) and his supposedly caring but overprotective wife Violet (Gena Rowlands)--are her next case. It all starts off innocently enough with Caroline seeing Ben's misfortune as a means to pay for her nursing school tuition. But once she arrives at the foreboding house a manse set on a bayou in the boondocks surrounding New Orleans (as if N'awlins isn't inherently spooky enough we have to contend with the city's desolate outskirts?) it's clear that this place comes with history. Seems the former owners' black servants used to practice "hoodoo"--a local folk magic--way back when in the attic and were strung up for it. Now their spirits could still be up there. So when Caroline hears noises emanating from above the (conveniently) curious houseguest investigates. Ben too seems spooked. Despite being deemed bedridden by Mrs. Devereaux he's escaping out of windows. Caroline believes someone--or something--may be tormenting him (you think?) and she searches for the answer which may or may not be lurking in the attic.
How The Skeleton Key does at the box office is pretty important for Hudson. Coming off her stellar Oscar-nominated turn as the groupie with a soul in Almost Famous the young actress hasn't been able to pull off the same magic since. Each of her last three films --Alex & Emma Le Divorce and Raising Helen--have been under-performers. So she needs Skeleton to work and thankfully as the doggedly inquisitive Caroline she holds up her end of the deal. Hudson refreshingly doesn't scream or over-emote like so many horror heroines have done before her--but her cutesy demeanor does rear its pretty head on occasion. Oh well can't win them all. Film veteran Rowlands puts on a fine show as the matriarch with something malevolent brewing behind the fading Southern belle routine. And poor John Hurt who is relegated to being tormented one way or the other as Ben. You can't help but feel badly for his character whose plight takes on a cartoonish form at times made even worse by the fact the esteemed actor has virtually no coherent dialogue throughout the film. And then there's the indie darling Peter Sarsgaard who plays the Devereauxs hands-on lawyer who's maybe a little too hands on. Although his screen time is limited he still adds a nice element to the proceedings.
Director Iain Softley's films up to and including this point are as disparate as can be: the underrated Beatles dramatization Backbeat; Hackers computer-lovers' cult favorite that gave Angelina Jolie her first big role; the critically acclaimed period drama The Wings of the Dove; and finally 2001's other-worldly K-PAX. Now with Skeleton Key it's ghost stories and Softley makes a critical decision not to reveal any sort of monster. The decision to only hint at something wicked without showing it in a summer full of the same tired gory special effects is a gutsy choice that pays off for the most part. It unequivocally leaves room for the audience to use their imagination--and Softley wants our collective imagination to run rampant. But even with this technique the scare factor still seems to be lacking. It's only at the very end do we feel any tangible danger--and that's a long time to wait.