In 2003, Disney released two expensive, live-action features based on different Disneyland attractions. The idea of basing a film on a theme park ride seemed absurd at the time - toys and board games, sure, but a ride? Nonsense! Still, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl turned out to be a massive success, using bits and pieces of the ride as inspiration for a thrilling pirate movie. In no time at all, Pirates of Caribbean was one of the biggest franchises of the decade. Alas, fate wouldn't be so kind to Disney's other attraction-based flick: The Haunted Mansion is nothing short of a disaster.
The opening credits are okay. We hear an uncredited Corey Burton utter the words, “Welcome, foolish mortals,” and are subsequently treated to a pretty good Mark Mancina cue while a lot of gothic imagery floats across the screen. It's nifty. After that, it doesn't take us long to realize that Burton was calling us “foolish mortals” because we agreed to sit through this trainwreck of a movie.
The film's central characters are Jim and Sara Evers (Eddie Murphy, 48 Hours and Marsha Thomason, White Collar), a pair of married real estate agents who have built a very successful business together. Sara thinks it's time to sit back and relax for a while, but Jim can't stop thinking about work. There's always a new opportunity to tackle, a new house to sell, a new client to woo. Sure, he's missed quite a lot of family events and his kids (Marc John Jeffries, Treme and Ariel Alexandria Davis, Everybody Hates Chris) rarely see him these days, but it's just so hard to quit working. Yes, this is the least interesting and most predictable family movie setup imaginable, and no, The Haunted Mansion doesn't do anything interesting with it. I can only assume that the filmmakers rushed through the creation of the film's plot in order to go home and spend more time with their families.
Anyway, the Evers family is supposed to take a weekend vacation, but their plans get interrupted by yet another work opportunity. It seems that someone has contacted Sara and asked her to help sell an incredibly expensive mansion on the Louisiana Bayou. Jim is desperate to land another big contract, and suggests a compromise: the whole family can go visit the mansion for the weekend. That'll be fun, right?
The mansion is a mysterious place. Its owner is the polite but enigmatic Master Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker, Stardust), who is assisted by a loyal butler named Ramsley (Terence Stamp, Superman II). It seems that both Gracey and Ramsley are convinced that the mansion is haunted, and we suspect they are correct, because this film is called The Haunted Mansion. It's at around this point that the whole film leaps off the rails, digging into a series of interminably dull subplots involving centuries-old romances, blackmail, wedding rituals, ancient curses, shadowy motives, a gypsy trapped in a crystal ball (Jennifer Tilly, Monsters Inc.), ghosts seeking freedom from bondage and oh god when will all of this end?
There are two tones being pitched throughout most of The Haunted Mansion: portentous spookiness and irreverent wisecracks. I suppose the theory was that the latter could play off the former in an interesting way and that the result might be a satisfyingly balanced PG-rated horror/comedy. The actual result is that we've got irritatingly shrill people telling obnoxious jokes while an irritatingly boring drama plays out in the background. A typical exchange:
Gypsy: “Evil and darkness have fallen this night. But now, to survive, you must gain new sight.”
Murphy: “I must first gain new underwear.”
There isn't a single laugh-out-loud funny moment in the whole movie, nor is there a single spine-tingling scare. There's merely a lot of noise, and the film's brief running time (a mere 88 minutes – 75 if you lop off the opening and closing credits) manages to feel twice as long as it actually is. It might have helped a little if the actors looked like they cared: Murphy has rarely seemed less interested in a part, and Terence Stamp's stilted turn might just be the worst performance of his career. It's clear that nobody is really invested in this mess, so why didn't somebody suggest that the filmmakers go back to the drawing board and start over? A paycheck is a paycheck, I guess. Do not enter, foolish mortals.
The Haunted Mansion
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 2003