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'Key' opens doors to imagination's worst

Published: Thu, August 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.

The film's old blues tunes, black-and-white portraits and a crumbling house remind us that the past isn't finished with us.
Even with tear-smeared mascara and a curse on her head, Kate Hudson is adorable.
Hudson's twinkliness works in "The Skeleton Key's" favor because it's so at odds with the movie's gloomy/black magic/"Rosemary's Baby" vibe. Other than an extraneous (and, I'd bet, tacked-on-at-the-nervous-studio's-insistence) dream that borrows images from the gory "Saw," "The Skeleton Key" is an old-fashioned movie -- more spooky than scary, more hinted at than spelled out, more Henry James than Stephen King.
Hudson plays Caroline, who's hired by a dragon lady (Gena Rowlands) to help her ailing husband through death's door. Or is the dragon lady trying to shove him through? The way Rowlands is photographed is more insistently ominous than the cliffhanger ending of a "Lost" episode, so the movie is obviously putting a "Suspicious" sign over her head.
But Caroline has issues of her own, and we're unsure whether something fishy is happening in the hoodoo-cursed house or whether Caroline is simply tormented by guilt because her own father died alone.
Haunting suggestions
Director Iain Softley, who made the superb, ghostly "The Wings of a Dove," brings the same power of suggestion to "Skeleton." Just as the characters are haunted by events that happened 100 years ago, so is the movie, which uses unnerving old blues tunes, black-and-white portraiture and a crumbling pile of a house to remind us that the past isn't finished with us. This gets the movie in the occasional tricky spot -- record players are a recurring motif here, as if no one in New Orleans has been to Sam Goody -- but mostly it plays into our own fears about death and the afterlife.
The recent film "Skeleton Key" most resembles "The Ring" (not surprisingly, since both were written by Ehren Kruger). That movie was no classic, but we owe it -- along with M. Night Shyamalan and "The Others" -- our thanks for helping revive an idea that is old-fashioned and, like so many old-fashioned ideas, also true: What we can imagine is much more frightening than anything the movies can show us.

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