With the major Hollywood studios happy to play safe with their horror output - either by snaffling remakes of Far East skin-crawlers (The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water) or by grave-robbing from their own back catalogue (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, House Of Wax) - it's refreshing to see the rise of an original spooky idea. After all, the last time that happened was, er, Gothika.
Although Brit director Iain Softley's specialist subject is hardly thrillers, screenwriter Ehren Kruger seems to have a more encouraging CV (Scream 3, The Ring). Softley's direction massages the heart of the film to a steady rhythm, but he's too cautious to provide any real palpitations beyond ghost-train-styled "BOO!" and "MWA-HA-HA!" shocks. The script takes an erratic meander around a potted plot more suited to a 30-minute Twilight Zone or Tales From The Crypt segment, and all the heavy-handed hints and zealously blurted out exposition only store up fatigue for the bungled reveal. More moth-eaten curtain than exotic cloak of secrecy.
Hudson is game enough, but she's a slave to the ropey writing. And without any moronic cohorts to sacrifice and the gaping absence of a decent, enigmatic boogeyman to be menaced by, she's left to - unsuccessfully - carry the movie solely on her nimble shoulders. Peter Sarsgaard pops up too infrequently as a lawyer with a slick and sinister Southern twang, and Hurt, one of the classiest actors of his generation, is utterly wasted as a wheelchair-bound mute.
Still, at least the twist is sharp and there's a close and clammy atmosphere created by the quasi-religious hoodoo (like voodoo but without the pin dolls and head-shrinking). Like a good jigsaw puzzle, The Skeleton Key will keep your brain ticking over, fitting together all of the half-glimpsed hints and mini-connections. But once it's over, you'll wish you'd wasted your time a bit more constructively (we suggest The Big Boy's Bumper Book Of Word-Searches). Poster quote time, then... "Better than Gothika!"
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More non-threatening surface tingles than bone-chilling terror, serious script problems undermine this post-Scream-audience-targeted spooker.