The Skeleton Key Review

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a young nurse working in a New Orleans hospice. She's unhappy there, dismayed by the uncaring attitude to the patients shown by the owners, the staff and often the patients' own families. Having lost her father not long ago, Caroline is particularly sensitive about the way the dying are treated. A newspaper advert offers her an alternative job where she could actually make a difference. An elderly couple living out in the Louisiana bayous is looking for a private nurse.

Arriving at their decaying old mansion for the interview, Caroline meets the family's lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) and he introduces her to Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), the property's formidable owner. Her husband Ben (John Hurt) recently suffered a stroke and it's he who will need a live-in nurse. Violet is unimpressed by Caroline, who isn't even a southerner, but she's persuaded to give her a chance. No sooner has she moved in than Caroline herself is having doubts as things start going bump in the night. Wouldn't you know it, the mansion has a past - one that's connected to the sinister practice of hoodoo. That's right, hoodoo, not voodoo - there's a difference. As a character helpfully explains, voodoo is a religion whereas hoodoo is a form of witchcraft. You learn something new every day.

The Skeleton Key is a little slow to get started. The plot is set up awkwardly and the southern-gothic atmosphere's laid on with a trowel. Stick with it. As the plot thickens, the film grows more and more enjoyable, working up to a splendid climax in which the heroine and the villains tear the mansion apart, doing battle with magic powders, spells and shotguns. This is surely the guilty pleasure of the year, eclipsing even the loopy Constantine. It's trashy exploitation with proper stars and a big budget. Look at the way Kate Hudson is stripped down to a low-cut T-shirt and skimpy undershorts in as many scenes as possible. That's Iain Softley, the respectable director of K-PAX and The Wings Of The Dove reminding us that he also made Hackers and he isn't above turning out a disrespectable Saturday night thrill-ride.

The A-movie gloss comes courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Mindel, who makes good use of the wide screen and the Louisiana locations, and an impressive cast. The actors are mostly wasted - John Hurt plays a paralysed mute! - but least Gena Rowlands gets a part to sink her teeth into. She seems to be having a ball.

The film's greatest asset is its ending. Although the script by Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, The Ring) is rarely more than functional, he does give us the best twist ending in a long time. It's unpredictable (well, I didn't see it coming), it makes us re-interpret everything we've seen without cheating or frustrating us and it's proof that the kind of macabre humour Hitchcock loved isn't quite dead.

Overall

6

out of 10

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