With her light yellow hair, clear eyes and purposeful stride, Kate Hudson cuts through the boggy gloom of "The Skeleton Key" like a beam of reason. But even she is no match for the lugubrious vegetation of the Louisiana bayou outside New Orleans, which fairly quivers with dread and swampy portent. Mind you, there's also the hoodoo, which is described as a sort of DIY voodoo and is clearly something no rationalist Yankee will be able to resist. Toss in a remote, crumbling antebellum mansion full of religious iconography, a creepy attic, a permanently locked door and an all-access skeleton key and, well, I don't have to tell you.
Caroline Ellis (Hudson) is a dedicated hospice worker saving up for nursing school when she answers an ad to care for stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) at his home on the bayou. Ben's wife, a prickly clever-goose named Violet (Gena Rowlands, in a delightfully goofy nefarious turn), tries her best to make Caroline not at home, but Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard), the molasses-voiced lahw-yuh to the Devereaux estate, talks her into the gig. Caroline moves into the house, which is garlanded in Spanish moss and slick with moisture, against the sound advice of her best friend and soon finds herself creeping tremulously along the edges of classic gothic horror, often in her underwear, late at night. Not that she doesn't look fabulous doing it.
Director Iain Softley ("The Wings of the Dove," "K-Pax") and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who wrote "The Ring" and the unfortunate "The Ring Two," based on a pair of Japanese films) have fashioned a tremulously lush occult mousetrap for Caroline, unabashedly milking every convention of the genre to deliciously melodramatic effect. Caroline, who is not the first nurse to visit the Devereaux house, soon surmises that Ben's condition may be other than what it seems -- it may have to do with something he saw in the attic and what exactly he believes that to be. Once she learns the history of the house, which involves a vicious banker and a pair of conjuring servants (whose story is told in artful flashback that mixes sped-up and slowed-down footage to dreamlike effect), Caroline sets out to trick Ben into believing himself cured -- a ritual that involves a candle in a bowl of water, some herbs and a spell jotted down for her like a gumbo recipe by a sorceress in back of a laundromat. Next thing you know, she's getting into some hoodoo of her own, sprinkling protective red brick dust around her like a bayou Gretel.
Hudson holds her own among impressive company. Not that Hurt has a whole lot to do other than grab an occasional wrist and recoil at his face in the mirror, and the usually measured Sarsgaard oversells it a bit, but Rowlands takes to the part like a fly to a shucked oyster. The story turns on its own logic, so it's no use asking why Caroline doesn't split on sight. (The annoying, familiar back story about her father dying alone doesn't cut it, either.) But "The Skeleton Key" is tightly plotted and suspenseful enough to keep you guessing until the satisfying, unexpected end, which is worth suspending disbelief for. After all, as they point out in the movie, "It doesn't work if you don't believe it."
'The Skeleton Key'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material
Times guidelines: Spooky supernatural thriller, not too gory
A Universal Pictures release. Director Iain Softley. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger. Producers Daniel Bobker, Iain Softley, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Director of photography Dan Mindel. Music by Edward Shearmur. Costume designer Louise Frogley. Art director Drew Boughton. Running time 1 hour, 55 minutes. In general release.