It appears that the Disney folks are continuing their habit of turning the Disneyland theme park rides into movies. "Pirates of the Caribbean" was certainly not the first; I suppose you could go all the way back to the fifties and the Davy Crockett phenomenon and Frontierland for that, but just as certainly "Pirates" was the most successful. Anyway, now we have "The Haunted Mansion," based on one of the park's oldest attractions. What might be next is anybody's guess: "Monorail Mania"? "Life With Lincoln"? "Matterhorn Madness"? Only time will tell.
So, how do you make a movie out of "The Haunted Mansion"? Apparently, not very well. The result here is more along the lines of a kiddie ride than the Disneyland attraction that draws children and adults alike. The movie is too cartoonish to be scary and too dull to be funny.
What "The Haunted Mansion" would like to be, of course, is another "Ghostbusters," but it's a far cry from that ideal, despite a plethora of special effects and the acting talents of Eddie Murphy and Terence Stamp. The film just sort of limps along like an old video game, "The Seventh Guest" comes to mind, moving in linear fashion through a series of set pieces. Because the plot is so thin, the scares so few, and the laughs practically nonexistent, the movie relies on atmosphere and CGI to get it through. Elaborate old furnishings, a fireplace out of "Citizen Kane," secret passageways, portraits with removeable eye holes to spy from, and a load of computer-animated ghosts. You know, the usual.
In fact, the usual clichés and stereotypes are so abundant, it's clear early on that we are supposed to take much of it as a tribute to old-time ghost stories. Either that or it's all coincidental, which seems like a stretch. For instance, among many other things the secret passages are from "Clue"; the spooky inside of the house is from "The House on Haunted Hill," "The Haunting," and "The Legend of Hell House"; the rotting corpses are from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Poltergeist"; the "I see dead people" line is from "The Sixth Sense"; the girl in the painting, the mausoleum, the surrounding graveyard, the swamps, and the mysterious key are from Bob Hope's "Ghost Breakers" (remade as Martin and Lewis's "Scared Stiff"); the disembodied head (Jennifer Tilly) in the crystal ball is from "The Wizard of Oz"; the bugs on the door handle are from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"; the skeletal ghosts of the dead are from "Pirates of the Caribbean"; the vaults are from "Interview With the Vampire"; the look and appearance of the film are courtesy of "The Frighteners"; and so on, you get the idea. Or maybe you don't, because all of this homage business sounds a lot more promising than it actually is. As it turns out, these old-time horror-movie chestnuts as offered here are simply tiresome and uninspired, appearing more like a desperate attempt to make something out of nothing.
Anyhow, Eddie Murphy stars in this kiddie affair, which should not be a surprise. His last few films were "Daddy Day Care," "I Spy," "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," "Dr. Doolittle," and similar uninspired nonsense. His last good role was the voice of a donkey in "Shrek," if that tells you anything. This time, Murphy plays a real-estate agent, Jim Evers, a brainless, egotistical twit who thinks only of making deals and of his own personal appearance.
His wife, Sara (Marsha Thomason), talks him into taking her and the two kids on a weekend getaway for some much-needed relaxation. The kids, Michael and Megan, ages ten and thirteen, are played by Aree Davis and Marc John Jeffries. And, yes, there have to be kids; this is a Disney picture, after all. But the husband can't resist making one small stop along the way, at an old house, the Gracey Mansion, that its owner wants him to sell. The mansion, haunted, naturally, is located in what appears to be the middle of a Louisiana bayou. This would be because the setting is Louisiana, only you'd never guess it from the actors. Not a single person in the movie has a Southern accent, not the Evers, not the mansion's residents, not the people Evers is selling houses to. Southern California is as close to the South as this film ever gets. (The two main occupants of the mansion speak in English accents; go figure.)
Once the Evers arrive at the Gracey Mansion, they're greeted by the sinister butler, Ramsley, played in appropriately creepy style by Terence Stamp, who has a nasty habit of looking past the people he's talking to. Then they meet the mansion's owner, Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), a Southern gentleman; and the footman and the housekeeper, Ezra and Emma (Wallace Shawn and Dina Spybey). Not once do the Evers question why all of these people are dressed in nineteenth-century clothing. Well, needless to say, we soon find out they're ghosts, and they have no intention of allowing the Evers to leave. The reasons are unimportant.
Before long the whole movie is jumping with ghosts. The dead are everywhere, and most of them are malevolent, with the exception of one "good" ghost who inexplicably floats in and out of the story, helping the Evers. I was betting on Casper, but it turns out otherwise. Oh, and there are four ghosts in the form of marble busts in the garden who sing barbershop. For me that was the cutest and most appealing touch in the film, but it was also the most extraneous part. Who are they, and why are they singing? Who cares; they're fun.
I began wondering about the proceedings when the first thirty minutes went by and there wasn't a single funny line or scary bit. After eighty-eight minutes, the duration of the film, I was still wondering. I'm also wondering why the film was originally released in the U.S. at ninety-nine minutes and in England at eighty-seven, the latter of which is basically what we have here. There is one deleted scene among the bonus items, but it wouldn't account for the missing eleven minutes. Did Disney executives figure the shorter, overseas version played better? I guess.
The plot is threadbare. Murphy has nothing to do. What little banter is attempted falls flat. There are stabs at fun-house thrills, but no real frights. There are virtually no laughs. There is a lot of noise but no originality. Regardless of all the ghosts, or maybe because of them, "The Haunted Mansion" is one lifeless, spiritless affair.
The movie is presented in THX-certified picture and sound, but in the case of the picture, that isn't saying a lot. The image is bright and clear in daylight shots, but in darkened scenes, which are many, things start looking a little smeared. The film's deep, rich tapestries of colors and shades--mostly browns, reds, and golds--seem oversaturated, slightly murky, and blurred. None of this is particularly objectionable, but it is noticeable.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound somewhat makes up for the several deficiencies in video quality. The audio is big and dynamic, with strong bass and quick transients. There is not a lot of directionality in the rear channels until well into the movie when the ghosts start to move, but there are some telling thunder claps early on. In a special-effects-laden film like this one, the viewer looks forward among other things to being entertained by the audio reproduction, and on most counts the sound of "The Haunted Mansion" holds up its end of the bargain pretty well.
Let me start with what I liked best about the disc's extras. It's "The Haunted Mansion Virtual DVD Ride," a tour of the house and a game at the same time, controlled by the remote. Then, there's a twelve-minute, behind-the-scenes featurette, "The Haunted Mansion: Secrets Revealed," that explores some of the films CGI effects, followed by another featurette, eleven minutes long, "Anatomy of a Scene: Ghosts in the Graveyard," that zeros in on one specific scene to analyze. After that are two audio commentaries, the first with producer Don Hahn, visual-effects supervisor Jay Redd, and writer David Berenbaum and the second with director Rob Minkoff and costume designer Mona May. Oddly, the second commentary is not advertised on the keep case; sorry, Rob and Mona. Oddly, too, the commentaries seem primarily designed for adults, the very people least likely to watch the DVD. I never understand these things. After those are a five-minute outtakes reel, a single deleted scene, and a music video, "Superstition," with Raven. The extras conclude with some DVD-ROM content, a THX Optimizer, a few Sneak Peeks from Buena Vista, twenty-four scene selections, and an informational booklet insert. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken language options, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The Wife-O-Meter thought "The Haunted Mansion" was one of the worst films she'd seen in a very long time, but she had to admit that it might appeal to a certain age group, namely eight-to-twelve year olds. Younger than eight and the film is probably too intense. Older than twelve and the film is probably too juvenile. That doesn't leave the biggest market for the product, but it was evidently big enough for the film to recoup most of its $90,000,000 production costs at the box office worldwide. The DVD is bound to do at least as well as the studio hopes it will. Still, unless you've got some eight-to-twelve year olds around the house, I wouldn't count on this being your best time at the movies.