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‘Skeleton Key’ fails to unlock real suspense

All-star cast can't bolster this dark-and-stormy-night cliché-filled film

Iain Softley’s “The Skeleton Key” desperately wants to be a class-act haunted-house movie, in the tradition of “The Innocents” and “The Others.” Unfortunately, it’s more like “The Amityville Horror” with attitude.

A splendid cast struggles against the antiquated shock effects, the lame plot twists and the dark-and-stormy-night cliches, and they all seem to be slumming. Whatever possessed John Hurt, Gena Rowlands and Peter Sarsgaard to appear in this thing?

As for Kate Hudson, she’s a long way from “Almost Famous,” which deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination in 2001. Wasted in a string of turkeys including “Raising Helen” and the clueless remake of “The Four Feathers,” she has once more landed in a vehicle that fails to tap into her talent.

She’s moderately effective in her early scenes, as a frustrated, somewhat guilty hospice worker who accepts a job at a leaky plantation house near New Orleans, where she takes care of a couple of cranky Southerners (Rowlands and Hurt). She’s from New Jersey, and the clash of accents and cultural differences is amusing for awhile, especially when she starts flirting with the couple’s charming estate lawyer (Sarsgaard).

Then the plot takes over, and the relatively subtle character interactions and atmospheric touches are replaced by hoodoo gumbo. Hudson’s character starts to notice that there are no mirrors in the house, there’s a locked room full of ugly secrets, and she’s surrounded by people who believe more deeply in folk magic than they do in religion. Only her hospice pal (Joy Bryant) seems level-headed, and she’s used mostly as a plot device.

Based on a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, who wrote “The Ring” and its tedious sequel, “The Skeleton Key” doesn’t have an original shocker on its checklist of Gothic horrors. At first the storyline seems to be exploring new territory, but then it becomes obvious that almost all the freshness comes directly from the setting.

The elderly couple’s home is a creaky wonder, spacious and complicated and filled with ominous history, including a lynching that isn’t located so far in the past that it doesn’t reverberate in the present. But once director Softley (who made the luminous “Wings of the Dove”) stops poking around the Louisiana locations and starts concentrating on Kruger’s narrative, there’s nowhere to go but down.

The movie also lacks the poetic visual flights of such voodoo classics as “I Walked With a Zombie,” which made a significant virtue of its low budget. Once he becomes committed to telling Kruger’s story, Softley simply gives up the battle.

The picture ultimately becomes so perfunctory that it wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that Softley’s assistant director took over for the finale. As for the actors, they might as well have been replaced by their stand-ins. Only the enigmatic Hurt manages to generate a certain amount of suspense. He’s sometimes so agitated that you find yourself wondering if he’s going to repeat his chest-bursting routine from “Alien.”