"The Skeleton Key" spends too little time scaring the audience and too much time offering up the same old tiresome stereotypes about superstitions in the Deep South.
Despite the film's ad campaign, "The Skeleton Key" is also more of a suspense thriller than a supernatural thriller. But it's just not thrilling enough.
The filmmakers spend the first two-thirds of the movie trying to set up spooky atmosphere. As dull as that is, it's preferable to the messy final third, when the whole thing collapses under the weight of various contrivances and a none-too-shocking plot twist that could have come straight out of the Big Book of Glaringly Obvious Movie Revelations.
Kate Hudson stars as Caroline Ellis, a nursing student haunted by her inability to save her dying father. That and her dire financial circumstances explain why she's taken a job in the swamps of Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish.
She's supposed to be providing hospice care for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who's been confined to a wheelchair and is unable to speak after suffering a stroke. Ben's wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), says his stroke was caused by something he saw in the attic of their creepy mansion.
Caroline investigates that room (which is where the film's title comes into play) and becomes convinced that Violet is the person responsible for Ben's problems. Unfortunately, no one else — not even sympathetic estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) — believes her.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger continues his obsession with ghosts and dripping water (he also wrote the screenplays for both the Americanized versions of "The Ring" and "Dark Water"), but hasn't really come up with anything new or interesting to say.
Director Iain Softley ("The Wings of the Dove," "K-PAX") does try to make use of Southern Gothic trappings and various bayou settings. Aside from spooky blues music, though, the one thing the film really has going for it is Rowlands.
The veteran actress seems to be the only one who understands just how cheesy this material is, and she really sinks her teeth into a role that's different from all the grandmother characters she's played of late.
"The Skeleton Key" is rated PG-13 for violence (including some vehicular violence and gunfire), scattered use of strong profanity, some drug content (use of prescription medicines and a drugging), use of some racial epithets, and some brief, partial female nudity. Running time: 104 minutes.