But during these dog days of summer -- which began, oh, around April -- one settles for guilty pleasures wherever they appear, even if they're little more than campy giggles dolled up in swampy Gothic fright-show tatters. Oh, and a little racist, too: The evildoers in The Skeleton Key are dark-skinned hoodoo practitioners scaring the white folks whiter. Something wicked this way comes up short, but whatever.
If nothing else, The Skeleton Key will go down as the movie in which Gena Rowlands -- wife of the late John Cassavetes, and no stranger to lousy movies despite her sterling rep -- tumbles down a flight of stairs and shouts to Kate Hudson, "Child, I believe you done broke my legs," a line that's got more camp than that lakeside retreat you send the kids to every summer. (Of course, only half the audience at a recent preview screening giggled; the rest were either silent out of shock or simply asleep.) The gusto with which Rowlands delivers the line is genuine, deep-felt and profound: She believes in it, as though she were uttering the dialogue of Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner. It's to her credit she takes such dreck seriously, as do all the A-listers slumming it in this Z-grade production; they believe in this movie, even if we don't.
Hudson, looking more and more like mama Goldie Hawn with each passing paycheck, plays a nurse named Caroline who, when we first see her, tends to the dying in a New Orleans hospice. Alas, she's fed up with the work: When her patients croak, she's charged with chucking their personal possessions in a dumpster, a most callous act of disregard for so tenderhearted a caregiver. So she seeks out a gig taking care of a coma-stricken man named Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who's living in the swamps with his cranky missus Violet (Rowlands). Theirs is a decrepit plantation covered in vines and shrouded in shadows -- a haunted house, for those who've never seen a movie. Violet gives Caroline a key that opens every room in the house, save one: a hidden door in the attic, which, when opened, reveals jarred and preserved innards of mysterious origin and the acetate recordings of a hoodoo priest named Papa Justify performing sacrificial rituals.
As it turns out, Caroline's a pretty lousy caregiver, concerned less with Ben's well-being than the mysterious doings of the old house; she's more Nancy Drew than Mother Teresa, constantly complaining to the Devereauxes' attorney (Garden State's Peter Sarsgaard, who surely was paid in cases of Dixie beer) that something untoward is happening in the house. Caroline, a medical professional who's supposed to scoff at all things magical and mythical, eventually comes to believe that Ben isn't in a coma at all, but the victim of some hoodoo spell placed upon him by his wife. She has no good reason for thinking this -- Hurt, in what surely ranks as the most degrading performance in his estimable filmography, does nothing more than grunt and groan throughout the film and spends all his time either lying in bed or crawling in mud -- but she does anyway, because if she were to act at all like a normal person and, ya know, flee the creepy house and its creepier caretakers, there would be no movie.
Ultimately, Kruger and Softley build toward a reasonably satisfying (and reasonably obvious) Twilight Zone climax, only they crawl toward the ho-hum ending; the movie appears to have been written and edited in a swamp too. It turns frantic near its end, but the pacing only lends the movie a certain giddy quality, as though you're meant to approach it as a joke after all. It's all so over-the-top, from the grainy flashbacks of decades-ago lynchings (of Papa Justify and his wife, Mama Cecile) to the thunderbolts-and-lightning vibe to the performances, which would taste delicious with a little Swiss cheese and rye. On second thought, perhaps The Skeleton Key is brilliant after all -- an in-joke built on the conventions of the very horror movies it refuses to take seriously. Child, I believe you done broke my will.