The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

It is as feeble a film as you're likely to see this year.

The Haunted Mansion

Director: Rob Minkoff
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Marsha Thomason, Nathaniel Parker, Jennifer Tilly, Wallace Shawn, Dina Waters, Marc John Jefferies, Aree Davis
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Disney
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-11-26

Consider your instincts confirmed: Pirates of the Caribbean was a complete freaky fluke and movies based on theme park rides are a bad idea.

Inspired by Disney's perennially popular ride, The Haunted Mansion is as feeble a film as you're likely to see this year. Too scary for six-year-olds and too tedious for eight-year-olds, it seems targeted at no one in particular, except maybe those who line up to see every movie starring Eddie Murphy in his current big-smiley-squaresville incarnation. (Or maybe those who'll be purchasing McDonald's tie-in Haunted Mansion Happy Meals, available from 26 November to 18 December.) Here Murphy plays Jim Evers, one half of the New Orleans-based real estate team, Evers & Evers. He and his prim partner/wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) promise to make their clients "happy for evers and evers." Mm-hmm.

Jim's smarmy salesmanship is compounded by his dim singlemindedness. The man just can't turn down an opportunity to sell properties. He does spend some precious minutes instructing his son, 10-year-old Michael Jordan Evers (Marc John Jefferies), on the value of whacking spiders in order to get over his fear. And he does note, for a moment, the remarkable self-confidence displayed by 13-year-old Megan (Aree Davis). But the film's first scenes are all about showing that Jim's priorities are in desperate need of realignment. Thank goodness that he's summoned to a haunted mansion, where he will be properly retrained by British-accented ghosts. In New Orleans.

Said mansion is, no surprise, impressively large, gray, and stony, and equipped with cobwebs, thunder and lightning, suits of armor lining long hallways, portraits with eyeholes, and secret passages. Jim hauls his family along, as they are supposedly en route to a weekend vacation "at the lake," whatever that means. Initially alarmed by the fact that the backyard consists of an extensive array of very old gravestones, the foursome is greeted by the odiously grim butler, Ramsley (Terence Stamp), who announces that they will sup with the Master, that is, a pasty long-haired fellow named Gracey (Nathaniel Parker).

Immediately, Gracey takes a liking to Sara, which annoys Jim, but not enough to distract him from trying to close a deal. Likewise, Sara in her pale pink suit is impressed by the detailed grandeur of the fireplace and the stunning artifacts that litter the joint; only the kids seem appropriately troubled by the fact that they must stay overnight because the storm has washed out the only road outta there.

From here, the film loses all pretense of plot (not that it was affecting it so assiduously beforehand) and plunges directly into theme park ride-ness: the characters separate and endure one inanely irritating event after another, most having to do with dully digitized effects, typically introduced by the servant-ghosts, muttery Ezra (Wallace Shawn) and earnest Emma (Dina Waters), or a gypsy in a green ball, Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly, presciently red-lipsticked and mascaraed so as to resemble Michael Jackson's mugshot). She tends to offer up deeply uninteresting riddles, such as, "For the truth to be known, you must find the key." To which Jim has a briefly suitable response: "What are you talkin' 'bout, Ball Lady!?"

Amid the slow-moving dreariness, the film offers up a strange kernel of impossible backstory, or maybe just ill-considered backstory. As always happens in such formulaic tales, the family has been summoned specifically, this time because Sara resembles the long-dead Master's long-dead lady love, Elizabeth. But lest you imagine The Haunted Mansion might actually contend with the difficulties of an interracial relationship initiated during some generally antebellum-looking moment (the spirit dancers who swing through the ballroom on occasion suggest as much), don't even fret. This saga is strictly preposterous.

Ramsley suggests (backed up by introductory imagery) that Master and Elizabeth's love was cut short by their unexpected deaths, hers by poison, his by hanging, as he was so grief-stricken he couldn't continue without her. But no one raises what seems the obvious point, that trouble-making objections to their imminent nuptials had to do with race. Or, gee, I don't know, maybe slavery. Such oversight might have to do with the fact that the kids and Jim spend most of the film exploring mausoleums, getting locked up in trunks, and running from skeletons, while Sara's getting the grand tour of the mansion's musty attic from Mr. Creepy Knickers, oblivious to the dangers besetting her children or, for that matter, her husband. By the time all come together for the inevitable big showdown, you might be feeling like you've survived a theme park ride that's gone on for hours, even if the film's running time is reportedly less than 90 minutes.

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