The Haunted Mansion
Director : Rob Minkoff
Screenplay : David Berenbaum
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Eddie Murphy (Jim Evers), Terence Stamp (Ramsley), Nathaniel Parker (Master Gracey), Marsha Thomason (Sara Evers), Jennifer Tilly (Madame Leota), Wallace Shawn (Ezra), Dina Waters (Emma), Marc John Jefferies (Michael), Aree Davis (Megan)
Disney’s The Haunted Mansion is, like last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, inspired by the theme-park ride of the same name. Scripted by David Berenbaum (Elf), The Haunted Mansion uses the ride’s familiar visuals as a leaping-off point for the horror-comedy, which is at times delightfully silly and at other times depressingly thin.
The mansion itself is a spitting image of the one found in DisneyWorld—a looming, Southern gothic structure tangled in ropey vegetation and cobwebs and surrounded by an enormous wrought-iron fence. The production design by John Myhre (Chicago) is fantastic—the sets are what we imagine the old Hammer horror films would have been like had they had a lot more money in the budget. Myhre gives us everything we’ve come to expect in a haunted mansion from countless haunted house movies and expands them. Thus, the graveyard out back seems like it extends for hundreds of miles and the corners of the grand ballroom aren’t just cobwebby, but positively ensnarled in the stuff.
The back story supplied by the movie takes place in the 1800s and involves the lord of the manor, Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), taking his own life after his lover commits suicide because they cannot be together (the fact that she is black and he is white is completely skirted, which gives the film an odd racial subtext). Fast-forward to the present day, where we meet Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy), an all-too-ambitious real estate agent who jumps at the chance to list the now-dilapidated Gracey Manor, despite the protestations of his wife and business partner, Sara (Marsha Thomason), who wants him to spend the weekend with the family.
What should be a 20-minute stop off at the Gracey Manor on the way to the lake turns into an all-night affair, as the Evers family is trapped while a storm rages outside, flooding the roads. Master Gracey’s grandson (also played by Parker) claims he wants to sell the house, but he has an undue interest in Sara, who we find out looks exactly like the love of his grandfather’s life (hmm … wonder where this is going …). Surprisingly, the story carries a decent amount of weight, at least enough to take your mind off the fact that you’re watching a movie sprung from a theme-park attraction. Berenbaum sets up a plausible mystery, although it is obvious where it’s headed at any given time (this does give Murphy the funniest line in the movie, though, when he complains about the clichéd obviousness of the film’s true villain).
Eddie Murphy, who has become something of a staple of family-friendly entertainment as of late, was a good choice to play Jim Evers, since he essentially works the same beat he did so successfully in the Doctor Dolittle movies, which makes him the straight man reacting against the chaos around him. Murphy hams it up as Evers, with his forced plastic smile and groan-worthy catch phrases (“At Evers & Evers, we want you to be satisfied for evers and evers”). There is something about Murphy that makes it fun to watch him in over his head; it’s as if, in this later stage of his career, he’s doing the opposite of his earlier roles, in which he excelled at playing characters like Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley who are always, but just barely, in control.
The rest of the movie is also extremely well cast. Jennifer Tilly has fun as the disembodied head known as Madame Leota, floating in a greenish sphere and giving out crucial plot information when needed. Wallace Shawn also seems to be having a great time as one of the mansion’s quirky caretakers, but it is Terence Stamp as the gaunt, cadaverous butler Ramsey who really leaves an impression. Understated to the point of regal monotony, Stamp’s character is an even straighter straight man than Murphy, and the barely concealed mendaciousness of his genteel reactions to the obnoxious Jim Evers is one of the movie’s funniest running gags.
Director Rob Minkoff, who started as an animator with Disney and eventually graduated to the director’s chair, moving from all-animated films like The Lion King (1994) to live action-animation mixes like Stuart Little (1999), gives us plenty of ghoulish sights, from screaming ghosts, to bulging doors, to hoards of lumbering zombies, but always keeps the tone light to remind us that this is first and foremost a comedy. Haunted house movies, at this point, can offer us little more than cliché after cliché, and Minkoff plays up the familiarity of it all, giving a few knowing winks here and there. If the movie never really soars, it’s only because it stays too firmly rooted in family friendliness. Never wanting to get too scary or too funny, The Haunted Mansion gets a bit mired in its own lack of ambition. It’s as if the filmmakers were simply pleased just to get a few chuckles, rather than out-and-out laughs.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick