The Skeleton Key

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Starring Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, and Peter Sarsgaard. Rated 14A.

There hasn't been a decent Deep South occult flick since Alan Parker put Mickey Rourke's rumpled private dick through his satanic paces in 1987's noirish Angel Heart. Perhaps Hollywood hasn't tackled the voodoo angle that often because most folks just don't grasp all that gumbo mumbo jumbo. Voodoo dolls, that's another story-everybody knows how they work. But what's up with all the spells, chicken bones, and freaky body parts in jars here? As one viewer a few rows behind me blurted out as the Skeleton Key credits rolled: "I don't get it."

Not that there's much worth getting in K-PAX director Iain Softley's flimsy damsel-in-a-haunted-house flick. Kate Hudson stars as Caroline Ellis, a New Orleans hospice worker from Hoboken, New Jersey, who-get this-actually cares about the people she escorts into the hereafter. When one of her patients expires, she refuses to toss his personal effects in the Dumpster out back. She keeps the dead guy's guitar-shaped keychain and cruises out to the Louisiana swamp (cue Delta-blues music), where she finds a live-in job caring for a dying stroke victim (John Hurt) in a rundown mansion. Also inhabiting the place is the invalid's wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), an old coot with an aversion to mirrors. Peter Sarsgaard shows up now and again as a concerned and understanding estate lawyer, so you know he can't be trusted either.

After Ellis discovers mysterious photographs and weird objects in the attic, the plantation home's horrific past is revealed. Around this time we discover that it's actually hoodoo and not voodoo that's going on, but that tidbit doesn't make the film any scarier. Apart from the couple of times when folks suddenly step out of nowhere in dingy hallways, The Skeleton Key barely registers on the thrill-o-meter. The most shocking moments involve, sadly, close-ups of Hurt's wrinkled, puffy face.

Hudson-who reportedly earned a cool US$7 million for her efforts-is not so hard on the eyes, so instead of wasting time trying to build suspense and set up scares, Softley focuses on her angelic countenance and shiny golden hair. Dude, we already know she's a babe! We've all seen Almost Famous! Here, take your worst-director prize from the Joe Bob Briggs Drive-in Movie Awards and don't let us catch you filming Kate Hudson topless, from behind, ever again!