As one of CinemaBlend's resident film critics as well as the man behind nearly all things theme park here at the site, my two passions come together in a big way whenever a new attraction based on a great film is introduced, or when a movie based on a theme park attraction is released. Certainly, that second category doesn't have all that many entries, especially if you ignore everything with the words Pirates of the Caribbean in the title. And part of the reason there aren't that many non-pirate selections is that most of those other films that have come out didn't have great box office success, and don't have the greatest reputation. Case in point: The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy.
The Haunted Mansion came out only a few months after Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and while the latter went on to launch a franchise, the former did not, though both sit comfortably on Disney+ together. Now, I have a confession to make: while I love movies and theme parks, and The Haunted Mansion (in both its Disneyland and Walt Disney World iterations) is one of my all-time favorite theme park rides, up until very recently I never watched The Haunted Mansion movie. I'd heard it was bad, and as I didn't want to watch a bad movie based on a beloved ride, I just skipped it up. But last week I rectified that situation, and I discovered something fairly surprising, which is that The Haunted Mansion is actually good.
I'm not saying it's an overlooked masterpiece, but on Rotten Tomatoes the film has a 14% Fresh rating, and that only goes up to 30% for the audience score – and that's extreme. The movie is fine, and some aspects of it are even good. If I was writing the review here on CinemaBlend for the movie right now I'd give it a solid 3.5 stars.
The Plot Is Actually Quite Subversive
If there's a major ding against The Haunted Mansion movie, and it's not an inconsequential or invalid one, it's that the plot is, for the most part, something we've seen dozens of times before. Eddie Murphy and Marsha Thomason are husband and wife realtors Jim and Sara Evers. Sara gets called out to an old mansion in the swamp in Louisianna and she brings along her husband and their two kids to stop by and check the place out on the way to a well-deserved vacation.
The vacation gets cut short due to a storm, leaving the family to stay in the mansion, and we eventually learn that the owner, Edward Gracey, who is very dead, believes Sara is the reincarnated spirit of his deceased love, and he hopes that by killing Sara he can end the curse on him and they can finally rest in peace together in the afterlife.
Is this plot original? By no means. We've seen the idea of reincarnated lovers done before. A few other tropes are thrown in for good measure, like the workaholic husband/father who works hard to provide for the family, but as a result, doesn't spend enough time with his family. This character arc isn't really resolved in any meaningful way. We also get the son who isn't measuring up to dad's masculine expectations. This arc is resolved, in a hurried and unsatisfying way.
However, there is one element of the plot that is actually sort of amazing. It's said throughout the film that the relationship between Edward Gracey and his love Elizabeth Henshaw was "forbidden" and we learn by the end that many people actually worked to prevent the lovers from being together but it's never actually stated why that is. Of course, one look at the couple, combined with the fact that the first part of the movie is supposed to take place somewhere in the late 1800s, and it all becomes clear. The Haunted Mansion is a Disney movie, based on a theme park ride, which is about an interracial romance during a time and place of extreme racism and segregation. At no point is this actually stated. Younger viewers who saw the movie in theaters probably saw this relationship in an entirely new way as adults watching on Disney+.
The Theme Park References Are (Mostly) Pretty Subtle
Part of what made the first Pirates of the Caribbean work as an attraction adaptation was that it took its inspiration from a small part of the ride, and just sprinkled in references when it was simple and easy to do so. Beyond that, it's able to be its own movie. The Haunted Mansion was always going to need to go a little harder on the references simply because the ride the film was based on was also the setting for the entire film. You can't put your characters inside an actual Haunted Mansion and not plan to evoke the ride a lot.
And the movie certainly does that, but the references are, for the most part, no more over the top than Pirates. Sure, Madame Leota is a character in the story, and the singing busts make an appearance, for little reason beyond simply being there, but those are largely exceptions. The best references are more subtle. Elsewhere in the movie, you have a conservatory which includes a piano set in front of a large picture window, a direct reference to one of the vignettes you'll find at Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion, but nobody in the movie so much as sits down to play. It's just there. Fans will notice and recognize the reference, and nobody else needs to.
The Mix Of Horror And Comedy Is Perfect
From the earliest days of the design of what would become Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, there was a lot of internal discussion and conflict about whether the attraction should be made legitimately scary, or something more fun. Walt Disney himself tended to go back and forth on the issue over the years. Eventually, the decision would be made without him, as he died before many final decisions were made. In the end, the attraction is what I would call "spooky" without really crossing the line into scary. While there are a few moments that might legitimately cause some to jump or cry out, the focus is on fun. The movie gets this right.
The balance of scares and laughs largely survives intact in the film. While it might have a few more Eddie Murphy jokes than the attraction, it's able to balance those jokes with some moments that are honestly more potentially terrifying than anything actually found in the ride. A skeletal hand trying to push its way out of a coffin is one thing, a ghoul actually coming out of that coffin and making its way toward one of our heroes is something else. A seriously scary Haunted Mansion movie would certainly have its fans, but a film like that would have less in common with the actual source material.
Another Haunted Mansion movie is reportedly in early development at Disney, and I'm certainly looking forward to it. There are a lot of places a new take could certainly improve on the one that we got. I'm not sure I'm even going to make the existing film a regular Halloween staple, but if somebody wanted to watch it, I'd sit through it again. It's a fun little movie that isn't as bad as its reputation would imply.
So now let's fire up Disney+ and see if that Country Bears movie is as bad as they say...