The Skeleton Key is being hyped as a horror movie, and indeed many of the standard components are there: creaky floors, mysterious noises in the attic, deep shadows, dark hints about hoodoo. But it's more of a psychological thriller, in which the central character had to wrestle with her own attitudes and beliefs, rather than external aliens or infernal demons. Oh, sure, there are some ghosts about the old Southern Gothic mansion and one of the central characters seems to have been rendered speechless by mysterious means. But this is closer to, say, Psycho than to any of the Halloween/Chain Saw Massacre/Nightmare gore and screaming flicks aimed at the teen audience.
The setup presents a young nursing home aide, Caroline (Kate Hudson), as one who is comfortable caring for people in the last hours of their lives. We soon discover that Caroline has lost her own father and has some guilt about not being with him at the end. So when she accepts a hospice job in an old Louisiana plantation house, taking care of Ben (John Hurt), it's consistent, though rather foolish on the face of it. Ben's wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), takes an instant dislike to the Yankee girl, and the couple's lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), reveals that she has already run off a number of helpers.
But take the job Caroline does, and with it a skeleton key that opens every door in the thirty-room manse "” except for one. Having lots of time on her hands "” and being a character in a movie "” Caroline naturally has to find out what's in the room. There have been plenty of foreshadowings by this time to tell her (and us) that her best move would be to hop in her red VW Beetle and hightail it back to New Jersey. But noooo! She presses on, eventually breaking through to the all but comatose Ben, who communicates to her that he needs her help getting out of there.
Director Iain Softely and cinematographer Daniel Mindel shoot all of this from strange angles, through keyholes, and in darkened, decaying rooms, halls, and attics. Ehren Kruger's screenplay adds a back story for the house, which was owned by a dissolute rich man responsible for, among other vile deeds, the lynching of two of his servants. The victims were well-known practitioners of hoodoo, described as a form of magic. Violet clearly buys some of the house's mythology but insists she's stronger than anything or anyone bent on running her off. She tells Caroline that the key to self-preservation (along with a dose of brick dust across your doorsill) is not believing in the hoodoo. But Caroline attempts to save Ben by manipulating his beliefs and, in the process, begins to get sucked in by the house's dark secrets.
On the way to a big switch of an ending, worthy of an O. Henry story or an M. Night Shyamalan movie (to which The Skeleton Key bears no small resemblance), there's some good interacting between Hudson and Rowlands. Hurt has to portray his fear and entrapment almost entirely with his face, and he succeeds. There are some dead spots, including the critical retelling of the house's sordid past, and some needless repetitions and red herrings. Still, Softely avoids going in for the Big Kill, and there are some moments where an odd sort of humor briefly emerges, including the slightly problematic resolution, which reminded me of an old Twilight Zone episode. The film is rated "PG-13" which feels about right. It lacks the polish and the payoff of Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, but fans of that film will likely enjoy this one.