Zombies are, if anything, overrepresented in today’s movie marketplace. Yet the spiritual tradition that invented them — Afro-Caribbean voodoo — rarely gets the spotlight, serving mostly as a genre backdrop for all-too-familiar stories about good-looking white people in over their heads (e.g., Angel Heart). Naive hospice caretaker Caroline (Kate Hudson) certainly falls into that category, but The Skeleton Key, a basic bayou thriller distinguished by a very self-conscious subversive streak, rises nicely above C-level.
”Hoodoo,” we’re informed, is different than voodoo. (It’s à la carte folk-magic, whereas voodoo is a bona fide religion.) All of this is news to Caroline, a caretaker who’s taking a crash course in ”conjuration” because she believes it’s connected to the catatonia of her latest sickly charge, Ben (John Hurt). Blocking her path is Ben’s wife, a honey-tongued battle-ax named Violet (Gena Rowlands, having a blast), who complains, rightly, that this Yankee interloper doesn’t ”understand the house.” Because the house, of course, has a past. That’s clear from one look at its rotting plantation colonnades. It comes as no surprise to learn it might be haunted. Ditto the revelation that, once upon a benighted time, a pair of black servants were terminated, shall we say, with prejudice. But what comes next, depending on your point of view, is either a canny manipulation of racist movie tropes or an exercise in facile genre-flick reductivism. The distinction may not matter: For anyone zombified by creaky thriller clichés, Skeleton is a fine little shot in the head.