The Haunted Mansion
I was a kid, the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World (or Disneyland) was
one of my favorite places on Earth. When I couldn't actually be at the
park, I had a record telling the story of the mansion (with a young Ron
Howard playing a teenager on a date who slips into the mansion to find
safety from a rainstorm) which I listened to literally hundreds of times in
my misspent youth. Okay, honestly, I've been back to the Mansion many,
many times as an adult, too. Even though it no longer holds many
surprises for me, I enjoy it every time. It truly transports me to a
different time in my life.
have felt a bit of trepidation since hearing about the fact that Disney was
making a movie version of the ride. The names I heard mentioned for
the cast scared me even more that it was not being taken too seriously...
Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Tilly, Don Knotts (who ended up not appearing in the
film.) Some of the worry was assuaged this summer, when Disney's film
version of The Pirates of the Caribbean turned out to be so
good-natured and fun.
Well, the movie version of The Haunted Mansion is not nearly as good
as that film. But it's not bad in its own right. I do think that
in order to really enjoy the movie it is much more necessary to know the
ride than Pirates, which was a good yarn that didn't require
knowledge of the attraction that it was based on. As a straight
narrative, The Haunted Mansion doesn't exactly work, though I do give
them credit for trying to come up with a coherent legend which was faithful
to the ride.
plot is about Gracey Mansion, a shambling old plantation in the swamps
outside of New Orleans. (It's not a breaking point, but it is
interesting that a film that is supposed to be set on the Louisiana bayous
does not have a single cajun accent, or even a southern one.) The
house has a tragic past. The Master of the dwelling (Nathaniel Parker)
fell in love with Elizabeth, a woman who was considered to be wrong for him
by all those around him. He asked Elizabeth to marry him, but she
killed herself. Or was she murdered? Distraught, the master also
commited suicide. It is an interesting choice that the film does not
ever mention that the problem that the couple had was probably racial.
He was white, she was black. That probably wouldn't have gone over too
well in the old south. It shows a nice casualness on the filmmakers'
part to not mention it, and yet ignoring that fact does make the woman's
death seem much more inexplicable.
forward to the present. Eddie Murphy and Marsha Thomason play a
married couple of real estate agents. Jim is really married to his
job, though, putting his business before his family. Wife Sara makes
him promise to take the family away for the weekend, but of course the
opportunity to look at a huge old manor house comes up and Jim talks Sara
into a brief stop on the way to the vacation.
neither of them knows, though, is that Sara is a near double of Elizabeth,
and the ghost of Master Gracey has invited them to the manor so he can be
reunited with his lost love. They are let into the house by the
wonderfully spooky butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) and when the rain forces
them to spend the night, the Evers family explores the house and sees more
and more strange phenomena. Finally, with the help of a pair of
ghostly servants (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters) and a disembodied spirit
(Jennifer Tilly), the family attempts to escape.
Sadly, Murphy, the biggest name in the cast, is also the movie's weak link.
He plays real estate agent Jim Evers with an eternal insincere grin.
I know it is supposed to be an indictment of the character that Jim is such
a fake, self-centered workaholic. But honestly, this is the same
autopilot role Eddie has pulled out in almost every film he's done since
Beverly Hills Cop II. It's almost like Murphy feels such disdain
for the material that he can't be bothered to invest the character with any
depth. Instead he sleepwalks through some weak jokes, does bored
double-takes at the special effects, kids around stupidly with his children
and periodically apologizes to his wife without much sincerity or
too bad, because while the story was shaky to be generous, the art direction
is wonderful and the special effects are truly enjoyable. Mostly this
is because the film does not go crazy with the effects. In fact,
only in the final scene in the mansion do the FX guys go overboard.
The film is full of sly nods to the ride that make it fun for the fans.
The sad truth is, though, the story does not stand up on its own.
Unless you like the ride, there really is very little reason to see The
Jay S. Jacobs
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Revised: November 26, 2003.