Born on a Bayou 

"The Skeleton Key" unlocks a phony but likeable backwater of creepy Creoles.

We journey into this soggy world of low-budget hexes with Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous"), a good-hearted city girl who has taken a job at a grand, decaying house in a Louisiana parish so remote that the gas pumps don't even talk to you or have slots for your credit card. She's there to nurse a paralytic in the last stages of dissolution (Hurt) under the watchful eye of his imperious wife (Rowlands), who doses him with powders and potions one immediately suspects do not have the approval of the FDA. A young lawyer (Sarsgaard) also pops in regularly, to get the old man's will in order before he drops off the vine, and to offer encouragement to Hudson, who's understandably ambivalent about staying on. The doors creak without intermission. All the mirrors have been stripped from the walls. And then there's the door in the attic that her skeleton key won't open. She's seen enough movies, one guesses, to know these signs herald no good.

These clichés are redeemed by the movie's enthusiasm for local color. It doesn't offer an authentic picture of this Creole backwater, but it nevertheless varnishes the proceedings with an agreeably phony sense of place. It's all there: the gumbo, the Gallic accent, the peahens on the veranda, the riverbank shacks harboring blind crones, the whole works. Spanish moss enthusiasts will be drooling over this film for years.

The central element in this waxworks cultural geography, of course, is the dreaded hoodoo itself — not to be confused, as one character rather pedantically insists, with voodoo (hoodoo is a Southern variant of the chiefly Haitian voodoo). In a flashback to the 1920s that includes a ghastly lynching, we learn that the butler in the house was a great conjure man, the splendidly named Papa Justify (Ronald McCall), who served there with his equally prodigious wife, Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott Sales). Poor Kate Hudson is helplessly overwhelmed by the legacy of blood and magic.

The direction of Iain Softley glides the first half of the movie along, at the unhurried pace of a raft with nowhere in particular to go. The camera languidly pans across swampy landscapes and is repeatedly sent aloft into the trees (the better to show off all that Spanish moss). Softley is smart enough to not turn his standout cast members into mere agents of the rickety plot, letting his shots linger, for example, on Rowlands as she puffs slowly on a cigarette, or on Hurt lying stricken in bed, pathetically unable to believe, it seems, that he could have landed in such a fix. He hasn't looked this tormented since the baby monster burst from his belly in "Alien" (1979). As for Rowlands, her performance makes a strong case for seeing genteel Southern womanhood as a cloak for indescribable menace.

The scenes involving voodoo — sorry, hoodoo — don't have the jarring eeriness David Lynch achieved with similar material in "Wild at Heart" (1990), nor are they handled with the lyrical wackiness David Byrne brought to "True Stories" (1986). Moreover, some of the many twists towards the end are predictable. Still, there are enough surprises to let you leave the theater mostly satisfied, if not exactly transformed. Everyone involved with this film seems to have known its limits, and to have kept within them. These days, that's almost cause for celebration. (PG-13) *** S



Playing at Commonwealth 20, Regal Short Pump 14, Virginia Center Cinema 20, Southpark Cinemas 6, Chesterfield Towne Center, West Tower 10. Call theaters for show times.

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