Skeleton keys will open any door in a house, even doors best left shut. Of course, it’s human nature to want to peek. Too bad if what lies behind should be kept secret.

Set deep in the lush but mysterious and isolated swamplands of Southern Louisiana, director Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key takes a splash of old-fashioned Gothic ghost story and a substantial dash of backwater folk magic to conjure up what is a truly clever ghost story.

When Kate Hudson’s headstrong Caroline takes a job as carer for elderly stroke-victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), Ben’s wife Viola (Gena Rowlands) hands her one of two skeleton keys. The key will open every door in the Devereaux’ crumbling plantation mansion including a rattling door hidden behind a bookcase in the attic.

Nestled in the heart of The Skeleton Key is a folk magic called hoodoo -“ a mix of African, Native American and Christian beliefs. Spells are spun to bring good or bad luck, to heal or control people. Hoodoo works only on people who believe and so -“ as the marketing spiel goes -“ fearing is believing.

Ben and Viola are clearly hoodoo believers. Caroline is the fifth carer to take the job, according to the Devereaux’ new estate lawyer Luke Marshall, played by Peter Sarsgaard. The rest have fled but the rational urban northerner Caroline doesn’t believe this hoodoo bunkum -“ at first. Viola’s tale about the house’s past sheds some light but it’s what Viola isn’t saying that drives Kate to turn the key in the door of the attic’s hidden room -“ no matter what is inside.

The Skeleton Key is an unconventional and intellectual thriller, surprisingly un-scary for most of the journey -“ that is until the many clues thrown in throughout the tale drop into place later, like the last pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

There are plenty of twists and turns, some of which initially come over as almost clich? However, while I scoffed at what seemed like a too-tidy conclusion, I could not get the story out of my head. It’s a testament to screenwriter Ehren Kruger, writer of the Hollywood version of The Ring, that the uncomfortable over-the-shoulder edginess you expect in a good thriller only came hours later after some meditation on the film. The Skeleton Key is much more than the sum of its parts.

Performances are solid all round -“ and especially from the two female leads, Kate Hudson and Gena Rowlands. Hudson is captivating, full of empathy and bravery, as the gutsy young carer who would risk her life to save the terrified Ben from the harm she thinks is coming his way. And the remarkable veteran of stage, screen and television, Gena Rowlands, is superb as the lady of the house with secrets so dark you wish she hadn’t handed over that skeleton key.

ALSO OPENING

Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki’s masterpiece about two 18-year-olds dealing with the legacy of child sex abuse, thankfully escaped the censorship axe. Based on Scott Heim’s novel, it’s a surprisingly tender and beautiful film about a distressing topic and is graced with exquisite performances from leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet.

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