A spare, suspenseful thriller. Mallory (Julianne Hough), is en route to her own wedding but still having doubts about her fiancé Brad – driving his car through the Colorado desert, she shifts the seat and finds fliers for escort services stuffed away there, and her free-spirited sister advises caution over the phone. When the car stalls in the middle of nowhere – presumably because Brad didn’t get it serviced properly – handsome stranger Christian (Teddy Sears) hikes by and helps out. With some understandable hesitation, she offers the courtly, charming fellow a lift but light flirtation turns sinister when he comes on strong and pulls a knife, insisting she drive to an out-of-the-way motel in a ghost town. Presumably realising how this scenario plays out in the movies, Mallory drives the car into a culvert … and is trapped in the upturned vehicle while Christian is thrown clear. Though plainly a roving serial killer, with a creepily moralistic bent, Christian opts not to murder Mallory outright but to leave her stuck, returning occasionally to gloat and extent his verbal probing of her weak spots.
Much of the film is like a mash-up of The Hitcher and 127 Hours, with the upside-down heroine fending off rats and ants and flood, and making use of what comes to hand (including her trousseau) to survive and fight back. A third act gets into a different type of peril, with Mallory in a position to hobble walk away relatively unscathed but compelled to do the right thing to help out her tormentor’s next chosen victim. A tight script by Kimberley Lofstrom Johnson and Lee Patterson still finds room for character growth as the ordeal helps Mallory think through her pre-marital jitters when her world is literally upended. Hough, physically confined for much of the film (inevitably, she has to ponder cutting off her own leg to escape – though not before she’s eaten a rat and sipped her own urine), gives a gutsy performance, and there are plenty of verbal barbs in her exchanges with the curiously detached yet malign Christian (his full character name is ‘Christian Laughton’, suggesting someone has a Mutiny on the Bounty fixation).
In The Skeleton Key, an update of 1970s TV movie-type woman-in-peril dramas, British Iain Softley showed he could handle female-skewing horror – here, he again gets the sort of material that would once have been a B picture or a 73-minute movie-of-the-week and invests it with grit and character. Along with Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, this finds producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse shingle extending its low-budget genre umbrella beyond the spook stories with which they made their bones and tackling the type of high-concept/low-cost, unpretentious psycho-thriller that sneaks up on audiences and bites harder than expected – here, there’s very good use of the old cliché of the mantrap left where it’ll do the most damage.