Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a prospective nursing student who was orphaned following the death of her father. Still haunted by the guilt of his dying alone, she's committed herself to hospice work with the incapacitated and elderly.
Deep in the Louisiana bayou, Caroline takes a job in an eerie, isolated mansion plagued by torrents of rain and sweltering heat. There she becomes the caretaker for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), a man who is paralyzed and unable to talk following a stroke. While his cigarette-loving wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) is initially suspicious of the new employee, she eventually hands Caroline a skeleton key that gives her access to all the rooms in the sagging old house--every room except one.
Driven by an insatiable curiosity that seems to be imperative for horror film characters, Caroline begins to snoop around (most often on a dark and stormy night when the electric lights are iffy). Hidden behind a shelf stuffed with odds and ends, she discovers a door in the attic. Unable to open it with her key, she fiddles around until the lock finally clicks. Inside the dusty garret, she finds a room full of bottled specimens, powdered potions and recorded spells, all pointing toward the practice of Southern black magic known as hoodoo.
When confronted, Violet denies knowing anything about the apothecary and pins ownership of the sorcery objects on the previous owners' black servants (Ronald McCall, Jeryl Prescotts) who lived in the upstairs room. While Caroline doesn't believe in witchcraft, she realizes the powerful hold it has on her patient when Ben starts making startling cries for help. Enlisting the aid of her girlfriend Jill (Joy Bryant) and the Devereaux's young lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), Caroline begins to unearth the dark secrets hidden behind closed doors in the New Orleans swamp.
Artistically the script manages to redeem itself from a rather prolonged build-up and give viewers an intriguing conclusion to this creepy saga. But for families interested in a fright film, this one includes brief, but strong, profanities and the portrayal of partial nudity when Caroline climbs into the shower.
More worrisome, the storyline may spark curiosity in the dark arts depicted in the plot. With nameless ingredients, some individuals concoct questionable remedies to use on others. Setting up hundreds of burning candles in the attic, several characters also chant incantations and rehearse passages of ancient writ while wearing the customary garb of the tradition. These rituals--some for the purpose of sacrifice--result in the killing of animals and the hunting down of humans, two of whom are hung and burned in front of a large, drunken crowd of partygoers.
Penned by Ehren Kruger, who also brought audiences The Ring and its sequel, The Skeleton Key's foray into the world of black magic unlocks more than just scare tactics in the blistering Louisiana bayous and may leave parents searching for a quick way out of this unfriendly marshland.