Can I borrow a page from Bill Maher's playbook and add a New Rule for horror movies? No more having people be surprised by someone who sneaks up on them from off-frame. It's cheating, it's dumb ... and it's soooooooo 1997.

"The Skeleton Key" is the latest from screenwriter Ehren Kruger, the go-to guy when Hollywood needs a by-the-numbers horror vehicle for a hot blond actress (see also: the American "Ring" adaptations). This time, it's Kate Hudson who gets her almost-famous curls shocked straight at various points in the film.

If you go

What: "The Skeleton Key"

When: Now playing

Where: Area theaters

Starring: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant

Written by: Ehren Kruger

Director: Iain Softley

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To be fair, director Iain Softley doesn't go overboard on the cheeseball scares, and he even works in a bit of Bayou atmosphere (although not as much as superior Southern-set horror such as 2000's "The Gift").

"The Skeleton Key" was shot partly in the swamps of New Orleans, but the main setting is the inner workings of an old mini-mansion occupied by an elderly couple. This haunted house is ultimately a stock character. Sure, it's dim and rickety, but it's not architecturally weird enough to really get under our skin.

Ben (John Hurt, effective in a nearly wordless role) recently suffered a crippling stroke and wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) is reluctant to accept a live-in hospice care provider -- lawyer Luke ("Garden State's" Peter Sarsgaard) talks her into it. But New Jersey native Caroline (Hudson) knows the job would be good for her budding nursing career -- and her pocketbook -- so she takes it.

But if Caroline doesn't know she's in a horror movie, the filmmakers certainly do. Is there a better time to take a shower than during a vicious thunderstorm with stuff falling and banging all over the creepy house? I think not.

I don't have the exact numbers, but considering "The Skeleton Key" came out on the 32nd weekend of 2005, I'd estimate it's at least the 32nd horror thriller to be released this year. The TV ads, which foreground '70s-vintage narrative description in place of the usual quick-cut visuals, suggest this film stands out from the pack a little.

It does ... a little. Kruger's yarn doesn't have enough layers to be completely engrossing, but at least it's not completely stupid. He incorporates elements of magic into the rules of this fright game. For example, a line of brick dust at the foot of a door means no one who means you harm can enter. And while the ending -- Old Rule: horror flicks must wrap with one last surprise -- isn't a huge shocker, it's neat.

Even casual moviegoers have seen so many films of this type that the expected pleasures of "The Skeleton Key" can't help but be diluted a little. Still, in a market that doesn't get the summer releases we really want to see -- "Broken Flowers," "Hustle & Flow" -- it'll have to do.

Grade: B-

JOHN HANSEN can be reached at or 855-5863.