No, it’s no Pirates of the Caribbean (who thought it would be?). But neither is it The Country Bears.
The worst that can be said about The Haunted Mansion is that it’s remarkably tepid. The best that can be said is that it’s reasonably harmless and nicely designed. Also, Eddie Murphy isn’t appalling here like he was in I Spy or Showtime (but that’s not saying much, is it?). However, it is ironic that in 2003, Murphy is playing a role that, for all intents and purposes, might have been done by Mantan Moreland 60 years ago.
There’s just not a whole lot of difference between Moreland in an old Charlie Chan picture warning Sen Yung about some potentially scary or dangerous undertaking, and Murphy begging Jennifer Tilly, “Don’t you bring out no dark spirits!” And while it’s doubly ironic that it’s now OK to laugh at Murphy doing the same sort of shtick it’s politically incorrect to find funny from Moreland, what’s more worrisome for the film is that Murphy isn’t nearly as funny. But to be fair, he’s also utterly reliant on his material, whereas Moreland — a natural ad-libber — was his material.
All that aside, the movie is essentially a slender, old-fashioned ghost fantasy — the kind that was old-fashioned when it was being done back in the 1930s (in movies like Smiling Through and The Witching Hour) — with phantasmic doings as an outgrowth of a star-crossed love affair that ended badly. In a prologue beneath the credits, we learn that the owner of Gracey Mansion (Nathaniel Parker, British TV’s Inspector Lynley Mysteries) hanged himself in grief after his bride-to-be, Elizabeth (Marsha Thompson), had apparently offed herself. Meanwhile, in the present day, a boy on a bicycle drops the fliers he’s delivering for the Evers and Evers Real Estate Company when he’s spooked by the house. Pictured on the circulars are Jim (Murphy) and Sara Evers (Marsha Thompson again).
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before that picture of Sara is going to find its way into Gracey’s possession, and then — faster than you can say Imhotep — we’re off on plot involving his being reunited with his presumably reincarnated love. It bothers no one, of course, that Sara is married to Jim, and the couple has a pair of “movie cute” children — not to mention the fact that Sara’s alive and her new suitor isn’t. (Of course, just like ol’ Imhotep and Helen Grosvenor/Anckesen-Amon in The Mummy, Gracey and his manservant are set to easily remedy that alive part.)
Racism is at the bottom of the plot — since the apparent reason that Gracey and Elizabeth’s love is doomed appears to lie in her ethnicity. And yet this is never mentioned; Elizabeth is only referred to as having been “unsuitable” and “from a different world.” All this makes you wonder if the project might have been developed without Murphy in mind, and the race aspect is merely attendant baggage — though it’s certainly a missed opportunity to make the movie a little more interesting.
How much any of this matters is open to question. Both this plot and the attendant one about the workaholic realtor dad who lands all of them in the soup in pursuit of getting a contract for selling Gracey Mansion (a premise so currently overused that it seems more old-fashioned than the ghost story) are little more than an excuse to get everyone into the theme park ride … er … into the haunted mansion of the title.
But how this aspect of the movie stacks up for anyone over the age of 6 probably depends on a fondness — or lack thereof — for the ride itself, since the movie is bound and determined to reproduce nearly every aspect of that amusement-park attraction with almost frightening exactness. (How they missed the elongating room, I do not know.)
Technically, the filmmakers did a pretty good job. The effects are generally excellent — only they aren’t all that scary, since they’re so geared to being family-friendly. Now, it’s certainly possible to make something that’s scary without it being R-rated, but that requires more invention than is on display here — and anyway, the Disney denizens don’t want to actually scare anyone. The problem with lowering the scare quotient is that it Murphy’s “feet don’t fail me now” reactions all the more dubious.
If you ever saw Bob Hope and Willie Best being pursued by the truly menacing zombie played by Noble Johnson in The Ghost Breakers, or Hope and Paulette Goddard facing the mystery killer in The Cat and the Canary, you know it’s possible to do this stuff and be funny and frightening at once. But those weren’t movies made with the grade-school set as the target audience.
Terence Stamp as Ramsley, the creepy butler, fares better than Murphy, though Stamp does so on pure camp value. Wallace Shawn also has a few good moments, though the best comedy is easily provided by Jennifer Tilly as the crystal-globe-encased, disembodied head of Madame Leota. (“Hang on!” Murphy tells her at one point, only to be asked, “With what?”)
But really, The Haunted Mansion is just not very good. Then again, it’s not especially bad either. More than anything else, however, the film’s just sort of there — and that’s hardly an achievement of note.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke