“Whack your own spider!” So declares Eddie Murphy to his on-screen son, as Disney’s The Haunted Mansion attempts to bring horror movies home for families while teaching us some sort of moral, Disneyesc lesson in the process. Apparently the idea is that if something scares you, you ought to run right out and kill it; whether “it” be spiders, zombies, or even a mild fear of extra-salty dill pickles. The fact that this sort of preachy foray into the pseudo-scary is even remotely entertaining can only be attributed to a combination of blind, stumbling luck and scary butlers.
The opening credits of the film set up a front and center ghost story in which a Civil War era New Orleans mansion plays stage to love-splattered tragedy. As a result, the mansion is now seriously haunted. Unfortunately, as The Haunted Mansion’s teasers have been pounding into our heads all year, nobody told the Evers family. Eddie Murphy stars as Jim Evers, a workaholic real estate agent partnered up with a beautiful and affection starved wife. He promises his family a weekend at the lake, but instead they end up detouring so he can make one last sale at Gracey Manor, the aforementioned, ghost infested abode.
He and his family get caught up in an ancient curse, finding themselves trapped in a house with all manner of ghosts, gypsies, and creepy crawly things. Along the way they all learn various lessons about caring for one another and are so busy focusing on self improvement that at times the Evers seem to forget to be scared of all those creatures from hell. But then, being scared doesn’t seem to be the point of this ghost story. Haunted Mansion is much better at being funny than it is at being scary. Oddly enough it really isn’t all that funny either. What carries it is a smashing performance from Terence Stamp as the world’s most sarcastically creepy butler. While Eddie Murphy is stumbling around, grinning his way through bad joke after bad joke, Stamp’s butler Ramsley haunts the screen, serving as the Mansion’s version of a cynically disturbed tour guide.
What helps Ramsley along in upping the deliciously creepy (if not very scary) factor, is a nearly admirable bit of set design. The Disney crew has managed to work wonders with the mansion itself. Every haunted house cliché is here in full, beautifully blaring detail. I hope the folks making Scooby Doo 2 take notes on the kind of lavish detail they’ve gone to here. By contrast, when the Evers leave Gracey Manor to trundle through a backyard cemetery, the film takes on an aura of uh… cheapness. A weird trip through ghoul country in a ghost-drawn carriage is obviously meant to mirror the theme park ride upon which the film is loosely based. Sadly, this looks and feels every bit as real as such a ride would. In other words, fake. Though from what I remember of the ride itself, they do manage a fairly good approximation of that experience. At least Pirates of the Caribbean can claim to have been based on a very good ride. Haunted Mansion cannot.
The best that can be said is that Haunted Mansion is not a total wreck, merely uninspired. Stamp’s performance is certainly worth a look as is the underutilized but spot on hilarious work of Wallace Shawn (to be forever known as Vizzini), who shows up from time to time as a sympathetic member of the Manor’s apparitional staff. Yet, Eddie Murphy and the rest of the film look as if they could use some sort of bigger motivation to get them through. Mansion delivers a few laughs and few interesting set pieces, but is so focused on working in enough morality to stay family friendly that it lacks enough originality to fully justify its existence.