With his scripts for Arlington Road and Scream 3, young, insanely prolific screenwriter Ehren Kruger established a reputation as a sort of cut-rate cinematic O. Henry, a glib, hard-working screenwriter specializing in superficially clever but ultimately annoying, unconvincing twist endings. After successfully adapting the Ring movies for American audiences, Kruger returns to his beloved half-assed plot twists with The Skeleton Key, a thoroughly undistinguished haunted-house movie about an estate cursed by some seriously malevolent voodoo.
Set smack-dab in the middle of Spookytown, N'Awlins, the film casts the perpetually plucky and winning Kate Hudson as a transplanted Jersey girl who accepts a surprisingly lucrative job tending to catatonic, stroke-stricken John Hurt in his remote bayou home. Gena Rowlands plays Hurt's mysterious wife, a strong-willed Southern-gothic matriarch who gives Hudson the eponymous key, which unlocks every room in the house, including one leading to a sinister space that resembles the prop room for a Nine Inch Nails video. Like a fright-film Harry Smith, Hudson also uncovers a creepy, narratively essential old phonographic recording that channels a mighty mess of voodoo power, but proves nearly impossible to dance to.
Like the recent Dark Water, The Skeleton Key assembles a cast (including a wasted Peter Sarsgaard) that's supremely overqualified for this kind of genre hackery. Unlike in Dark Water, however, the film's highfalutin' talent fails to elevate the dreary material. Having renowned thespians like Hurt and Rowlands play the creepy old man and woman, respectively, doesn't make their characters any less pat, especially once Rowlands starts chewing scenery and camping it up like Karen Black on a bad day. Hackers auteur Iain Softley directs with little feel for atmosphere or suspense. A vital flashback comes off as more comic than sinister, thanks to sped-up film and broad, cartoonish caricatures of voodoo rituals and wealthy flappers living it up. Wholly devoid of suspense or chills, The Skeleton Key simply bides its time until its big final plot twist, but the filmmakers don't seem to realize that a second-rate twist can't redeem a third-rate fright flick.