The Haunted Mansion


Robin Clifford 
The Haunted Mansion
Laura Clifford 

Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) is a hard driving, go-go-go realtor always looking to make yet another sale. When his wife and business partner, Sara (Marsha Thomason), is summoned to an old, antebellum mansion to discuss its sale by the owner, Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), Jim smells a big deal. Instead of keeping his promise to take the family away for the weekend, he leads the way to Gracey Manor. The Evers, with their two kids, don’t know it but they are about to enter a “Haunted Mansion.”

Robin:
This is the third time that Disney has taken one of its theme park rides and turned it into feature movie. First was the surprisingly popular ”The Country Bears,” followed by the box-office dynamo, “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I didn’t see the former, loved the latter and have never been to Disney World but was open-minded about “Haunted Mansion.” I got, I am told, a fairly accurate rendition of the theme park ride of the same name, but not much more. After the roller coaster ride (and terrific comic performance by Johnny Depp) of  “Pirates,” I was less than thrilled with the blandness of “Mansion.”

Murphy’s Jim Evers is shown as a glad-handing realtor who is more concerned with the sale than he is his family. He takes yet another meeting with perspective clients rather than get home in time for his anniversary celebration. Jim gives his word that he will take them all to the lake for the weekend when Sara gets the mysterious phone call from Gracey’s butler, Ramsley (Terence Stamp). Sara tries to put it off but the eager realtor sees dollar signs in the prospective deal and decides to make a little detour on the way to the lake, “just for 20 minutes,” to check out the old manor. While there, a violent downpour washes out the road to the remote estate and the Evers family must stay the night.

Jim disregards the warnings and evidence that there are ghosts in the mansion until he discovers the truth about Edward Gracey and the man’s interest in Sara. When Evers is separated from his wife and kids, he realizes the true values of life, finds the kids and, with the help of crystal ball bound seer, Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly), stops Gracey’s plans for Sara. This fantasy tale is rife with special F/X: ghostly apparitions, flying instruments, singing statues and more whirl around the mansion and offer help and hindrance to the Evers.

“Haunted Mansion” may have an audience in those 4 to 7-year olds that are familiar with the ride and will be amused by the spooky action on screen. There is little appeal, though, for anyone older than that. Eddie Murphy should be embarrassed by his portrayal of Jim Evers. His fake smile salesman persona extends to his family life and, you get the feeling, has always put Sara and the kids, Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and Megan (Aree Davis), after business. Worse, still, are the wide-eyed stares of fright – akin to Stepin Fetchit in the 1930’s – as Murphy hams it up with the ghosts. I hope Murphy got a lot of money for “Haunted Mansion” because it surely does not do his career any good.

Marsha Thomason has the unfortunate task of being the object of the ghostly affections of Gracey and gets to just play a damsel in distress. Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis are OK as the kids but are mainly relegated to reacting to the off screen effects that aren’t really there. Terence Stamp, as the droll, slow moving but ever-present butler, Ramsley, steals the show any time he is on the screen. Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters play a ghostly pair of servants that aid the Evers in their quest save Sara and free the earth bound apparitions that are stranded between life and the freedom of “white light.” Nathaniel Parker is uninteresting as the master of Gracey Manor.

Technically, “Haunted Manor” is not bad. (Though, not anywhere near enough to make me recommend the movie.) The ghost effects are routine but the flying instruments and barbershop quartet singing busts are amusing. Special F/X, alone, do not make a good movie.

If the creative folk at Disney are going to keep using the theme parks as an idea pool for films, they should stick to the “Pirates” mold and break the “Haunted Mansion” one. I give it a D+.

Laura:
Realtor Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) cannot let a business opportunity go by much to the chagrin of his business partner wife Sara (Marsha Thomason, "Black Knight") and kids Megan (Aree Davis) and Michael (Marc John Jeffries, "Losing Isaiah").  After blowing an anniversary dinner engagement, Jim promises to take the wife and kids to their cabin on a lake for the weekend, but once again, money talks and Jim insists on a swing-by at a lucrative property which turns out to be an overnight adventure at "The Haunted Mansion."

It's hard to believe that the screenwriter of the confectionery "Elf," David Berenbaum, also penned this walking mass of tepid turkey leftovers.  Sitting through "The Haunted Mansion" is about as exciting as watching a stranger's slide show of their trip to Disneyland.

The opening title sequence shows up the backstory of the mansion's haunting.  As hundreds of lavishly outfitted guests swish around a ballroom, a woman dies of poisoning and her lover, the mansion's owner, hangs himself in grief.  In the present, Eddie Murphy smears a false smile across his fact to assure clients that he wants them to be happy for "Evers and Evers."  We learn his son's terrified of spiders and his daughter is fearless because that information will prove useful later.

As soon as the Evers clan reaches the mansion (a padlocked gate mysteriously opens), a thunderstorm of immense proportion unleashes.  Ramsley (Terrance Stamp, "The Limey"), the butler, appears out of the shadows to announce that he'll have to set additional places for dinner (only Sara's services had been requested).  Of course, Sara is the spitting image of the dead master's beloved and the family is quickly separated so that dead owner Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker, "Squanto: A Warrior's Tale") can break the mansion's curse by marrying her once she's joined him in the spirit world.

There are a few pleasures to be had in "The Haunted Mansion," but most of them are the recognition of decades old signatures of the theme park ride.  Statuary heads on pedestals turn and paintings change as Jim walks down the hall.  A frustrating fortune teller, Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly, "The Cat's Meow") is a disembodied head floating in a crystal ball.  Musical instruments fly about the room, creating a nice surround sound effect and a statuary barbershop quartet in the mansion's cemetery are amusing.  In general, the production design (John Myhre, "Chicago"), at least in the mansion's interiors (exterior and crypt work is far more artificial), is rich, sets decorated with armor, animal horns, Venus flytraps under glass and wooden panels and moldings.

With the exception of Stamp, the cast is average to inadequate.  Eddie Murphy's only successful schtick is that fake realtor's leer and he plays that card once too often.  Otherwise he's like one of those character actors in a Three Stooges haunted house short that run around screaming with their eyes popping out.  Thomason is a very pretty woman but she can't act. The kids and Parker are OK.  Wallace Shawn ("The Princess Bride") is as disappointing as Murphy, bringing nothing to the party.  Terrance Stamp dredges up obscenely rounded tones to make announcements like 'The storm has swollen the river.' which are a hoot, but even he seems to tire of the film well before its over.

Director Rob Minkoff ("Stuart Little") churns out this increasingly numbing affair with less life than the mansion's denizens.  The whole thing ends up with a pit of hell, ghostly wedding and heavenly ascent that owe much to Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" (as does the attraction itself) but are mostly R.I.P.P.ed off from "Beetlejuice."

D+

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