A good thriller keeps you tightly focused on the story and its suspense; a not-so-good thriller leaves you free to wander unexpected hallways....

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A good thriller keeps you tightly focused on the story and its suspense; a not-so-good thriller leaves you free to wander unexpected hallways. Why, I wondered, during Iain Softley’s lock-and-key themed “The Skeleton Key,” was Kate Hudson continually wearing a locket in the shape of a lock with a keyhole? Was this a not-so-subtle attempt to underline the theme, aimed at the slower ones among us? Would Hudson, in the penultimate moment of the film, take the titular skeleton key (which opens, among other things, The Creepy Attic Where She’s Not Supposed To Go), put it in her locket and unlock — oh, I don’t know, a better movie? And would similar lockets be for sale in the lobby?

Aptly chosen accessories aside, there’s lots of bad stuff brewing on the bayou in this occasionally scary but more often silly movie, which wastes some good actors along the way. Hudson plays Caroline, an idealistic New Orleans hospice worker who takes a job at an old plantation house out on the Louisiana delta where, a friend warns her, there are “gators in the swamps, and guys missing teeth.” (Alas, we never see either.)

Movie review 2 stars

Showtimes and trailer

“The Skeleton Key,” with Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant, John Hurt. Directed by Iain Softley, from a screenplay by Ehren Kruger. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material. Several theaters.

Caroline has taken the post because, well, it’s $1,000 a week for a job that seems to consist of wandering around an old house, snooping in the attic, zipping into town to confer with her buddy Jill (Joy Bryant), chatting with her employer’s cute lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard) and eyeing the lady of the house (Gena Rowlands) with suspicion. Sure, there’s an old man (John Hurt) with a stroke to take care of, but Caroline appears to be too busy sneaking around to do much of that.

As snoopers invariably do, she uncovers some disturbing finds: mysterious photographs, voodoo trappings, noises in the attic, missing mirrors and the house’s dark history. And, of course, the place is rife with the classic horror-movie problem of People Suddenly Appearing Right In Front Of You When They Weren’t There Just a Moment Before. Softley stages this sort of thing manfully, with plenty of room for audience gasps, but you can tell his heart isn’t really in it. (Since his lovely 1997 Henry James adaptation “The Wings of the Dove,” this British director’s been floundering a bit; his last movie was the iffy Kevin Spacey vehicle “K-PAX.”)

Hudson, whose sunny-day smile never gets a moment’s airing here, seems miscast; Sarsgaard drops in and out; and Rowlands and Hurt are simply slumming in what would, with a lesser cast, be a disposable B-movie. Ehren Kruger’s screenplay eventually becomes nonsensical, and the movie’s real hero turns out to be director of photography Dan Mindel, who contributes some beautifully lit nighttime shots of the bayou. Nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to work there.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com