Kate Hudson unlocks a skeletal plot

Though for years they wouldn't be caught dead in one, Hollywood A-list actresses are now desperate to star in a horror movie.

For the most part, that's because scary movies tend to be surefire hits. Think Nicole Kidman in "The Others," Halle Berry in "Gothika," and Naomi Watts in "The Ring." Now it's Kate Hudson's turn.

In "The Skeleton Key," directed by Iain Softley, Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, a nurse in New Orleans. Fed up with how the staff treats patients at the local hospice, Caroline accepts a job caring for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), a mute in a wheelchair.

Caroline senses that there's something wrong with the house as soon as she enters it. What might have tipped her off? The creepy religious iconography on the walls? The fact that all the mirrors are stored in the attic? Or maybe Ben's meddlesome wife (Gena Rowlands) who, in some of the scarier bits of dialogue, tends to call everyone "child" and, in lieu of expletives, says "fiddlesticks?"

Why Caroline accepts the job at all is the film's major stumbling block. She seems to think $1,000 a week is reasonable for living in a haunted mansion. (The Devereaux lawyer, played by a well-greased Peter Sarsgaard, tells her that "at least the checks clear.") But when Ben tries to escape and falls off the roof, Caroline decides the house has him under its spell and decides to save him.

Using a skeleton key that opens every door, our amateur detective uncovers a "hoodoo room" in the attic filled with unsettling tchotchkes: body parts in formaldehyde and strange hypnotic recordings. Hoodoo, the movie tells us, is a form of African-American folk magic. Further complicating matters is the revelation that two servants were lynched at the estate - an episode recreated in an especially jarring flashback for a popcorn movie of this ilk.

Softley's direction is crisp, and he uses the bayous of New Orleans as an evocative and sinister backdrop, even if his portrayal of the racial divide in the South feels dated. A charismatic Hudson isn't bad either. But screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who wrote both "Ring" films and "Scream 3," should know better than to take these kinds of stories quite so seriously, or dare insert yet another shower scene in a film, as he does here.

It's not until the final 10 minutes, when all the obvious exposition is out of the way, that "Skeleton Key" really gets going. But by then you already know what monsters are hiding in the attic.

Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material.

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