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'The Skeleton Key' doesn't do voodoo so well

The credits for the new Kate Hudson voodoo thriller, ''The Skeleton Key," say the screenplay is by the horrorsmith Ehren Kruger and the direction courtesy of the art-film practitioner Iain Softley. But all signs suggest that the film's true maker was a particularly spiteful Ouija board. This nasty little movie is communicating with regional and racial cliches from beyond the grave. Yet, come the final act, it manages to be insulting and, somehow, playfully absurd at the same time.

Hudson plays Caroline, a New Orleans nurse who takes a job caring for a pair of seniors in their ancient manse out in the swampy bayou. The proprietress is a bitter old lemon named Violet Devereux, whom Gena Rowlands plays in a cantankerous state that feels like a sequel to the retirement-home wilding out she did in ''The Notebook." Caroline's responsibilities require her to bathe and clothe the droopy soul often slumped over in a wheelchair. The man's name is Ben. He's Violet's husband, and the esteemed English actor John Hurt inhabits the character's drooling catatonia with troubling professionalism.

Caroline tells her understandably skeptical gal pal (Joy Bryant) that she has accepted the job because it'll earn her money and credits for nursing school. But really, the job is good practice for her detective skills, for Caroline does a lot of snooping and spying. She finds the locked door in Violet's attic that the titular key opens. On the other side is a room full of antiques Violet has banned from the rest of the house. (Something in that room gave Ben his crippling fright.) But, crucially, Caroline learns that people in the swamps of Louisiana practice a little something called voodoo.

Caroline is a white girl from Hoboken, so you'll have to forgive her for not knowing that if you pull into a filling station where there are shucked oysters teeming with flies and alligator heads hanging from the ceiling, you peel off. There's voodoo in the offing. Instead, she waits for a pair of scary-looking black people to materialize from a back room to let her know that something ain't right.

To explain what is ultimately inexplicable, ''The Skeleton Key" trots out the back story of two black servants from many decades ago who caused an uproar with their witchy ways. At a big mansion soiree, the butler, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall), and the maid, Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott Sales), are caught ''conjuring" on their masters' cute blond tykes, who appear to be having a ball sitting amid certifiable evil. (Alas, black magic.)

The appalled white party guests promptly lynch and then burn the help, and the news is presented to us in a scratchy, black-and-white flashback that looks like a D.W. Griffith music video, complete with Justify and Cecile's beckoning to the camera, their eyes rolling back in their skulls, and their bodies shivering with erotic possession. In the present, no time is wasted (even if quite a bit of money and talent were) to show us a lot of chicken bones, brick powder, and sweaty, suspicious black people, all of which has some lurid bearing on Caroline and her new job.

What specifically, I'm not at liberty to say. But the movie contains what feels like a bad satirical joke on Hollywood's timeless casting philosophy when it comes to race. The gag shows up in the last 10 minutes and is stuffed in a plot twist that pops out like an airbag after a car crash. The filmmakers shove their way right past the flagrance of the racial images, as if they'd lost their power to hurt or annoy. (They haven't.) Yet the movie might have justified some of its offenses had the star been Bryant, an alluring, young African-American actress who isn't hired enough. Come the last 10 minutes, it also would have made more narrative sense.

In any case, the movie just has fun reducing loaded racial imagery to commercial silliness. Caroline winds up squaring off against Violet, and the estimable Peter Sarsgaard is dragged into the mounting hilarity as Violet's attorney. (Until the finale, Hudson's participation remains uncharacteristically zestless.)

None of ''The Skeleton Key" is scary or necessarily suspenseful. But Softley, who pulled off an improbably inspired adaptation of Henry James's ''The Wings of the Dove" in 1998, appears to be enjoying himself with this slummy little movie. It has the wild, rancid atmosphere of a garbage bag that a raccoon has ripped open.

The filmmakers find their footing the last 20 minutes. Its trashy ominousness is best captured when Rowlands comically tells a wary Hudson, ''You haven't touched your gumbo." That she hasn't amounts to the only twitch of common sense in the whole film.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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