It has a Living Room, and a Dying Room…
Ok, so at the time of writing, Halloween is only a few days away, so I thought I would get cracking with a review of one of Disney’s supposedly more spooky efforts, The Haunted Mansion.
The film starts off nicely, with a promising title sequence which gives a nod to the floating candelabra in the Haunted Mansion attraction. We are also given a glimpse of a back story, which doesn’t seem to give much away to the viewer. We are then introduced to workaholic Jim Evers, (Eddie Murphy) who is a realtor, and his slightly neglected wife Sara (Marsha Thomason), who are due to celebrate their anniversary. It appears that Jim had not been too attentive to his family recently, so to try to get back in his family’s good books; Jim decides to take them all on a trip to the lake for the weekend. Before they leave, Sara receives a phone call from Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), who is looking to sell his property, a large mansion near an isolated bayou. On their way to the lake, Jim and his family stop off at the mansion to do some business. When they arrive, they are solemnly greeted by Master Gracey’s butler, Ramsley (Terence Stamp) who then introduces them to Mr. Gracey himself. It is made painfully clear to the audience that Master Gracey has a questionable interest in Sara, Jim’s wife; however Jim seems pretty oblivious to that at this point.
Ramsley has a chat with Jim, and then leaves him alone in the library, where Jim accidentally stumbles upon a secret passage into a long corridor. It is at this point in the film where a lot of influences from the attraction can be seen. The schizophrenic pictures on the wall will be familiar to Disney theme park fans, as well as the ‘inside out’ busts and the ride’s signature purple wallpaper with glaring eyes. At the end of the long corridor Jim finds a door that appears to be bulging, with what he suspects to be termites. He passes through the door and continues deeper into the mysterious darkness. Meanwhile his two children are following a floating ‘glow’ up into the attic, (time to whip out your imagination a bit at this point) where we can see a bridal gown (another Haunted Mansion reference) as well as countless other cobweb-clad objects. In the attic they see a portrait of what appears to be their mother, but are sharply told not to ask any questions by a strange little man, who is actually a ghost called Ezra, and a jumpy maid called Emma.
In the meantime, Jim encounters Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly) in the séance room. Fans of the ride will be familiar with this scene, where Madame Leota’s head smoothly recites incantations from inside a glass ball. There are musical instruments floating within the room that periodically make noises in response to her readings. Jim has a very strange encounter with Leota and is seen running down a corridor trying to escape a cacophony of instruments from the séance room; this is one of the film’s many pathetic attempts at comedy. We then learn that Master Gracey is in fact dead, and needs Sara (who he believes is a reincarnation of his lover) to be reunited with him to free all of the residents of the mansion, who are also all ghosts. We are then treated to what is possibly the best part of the movie (at a stretch), as Jim and his children are carried through the grounds of the house in a horse and carriage. Haunted Mansion fans will recognise the horseless carriage from outside of the attraction in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It is also here that we see a lot of the ghosts which occupy the famous attraction, the see-saw ghosts, the groundskeeper and his dog, and the particularly famous ‘Hitchhiking Ghosts’, also known as Phineas, Ezra and Gus.
Things become a little more tedious after this scene, and the rest of the story limps along lifelessly, however I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who wants to give this movie a fair chance!
The Haunted Mansion was released after The Country Bears and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and all three are based upon Disney theme park attractions. Of course, there is no need for me to tell you which one of these films did insanely well at the box office, unless you have been living under a rock since 2003. Unfortunately, The Haunted Mansion followed in the footsteps of The Country Bears, and did a belly flop into that ‘at capacity’ pool of Disney duds of years past. What could have been something very creepy, very dark and very entertaining turned into a snooze-fest, dragged lifelessly through its 99 minutes by Eddie Murphy at a (pardon the pun) deadly slow speed. Although watchable, it does beg the question of why this popular and well-loved attraction had to be degraded in a film which is in a tug-of-war over whether it wants to be scary or comedic. In the end, neither wins out, leaving us with a confusing and shabby storyline with flat characters and drab dialogue to match. Eddie Murphy should have been as strong of a character as Captain Jack Sparrow, carrying the story and making for very many laughs along the way, however he relies on his signature smile to steal a giggle from the audience, which hasn’t worked since the 90s. Marsha Thomason who plays Sara Evers delivers some truly wooden acting, making the ghosts look vivacious. Master Gracey who is played by Nathaniel Parker does not seem to have that ‘aura of foreboding’ about him that you would expect from a dead man, and therefore does not make for a very remarkable character, where he should have been exactly that. The two most outstanding performances are by Jennifer Tilly and Terence Stamp, although they cannot carry the film along on their roles alone.
Ok so having angered all the fans of this movie, all 3 of them, I will move onto some good points, of which there are few. As I mentioned earlier, there are many references to the attraction which the movie is based upon. The main story of the film follows, albeit loosely, the story which runs through the Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, as it involves a bride and a bunch of dead folks. I mentioned above the scene with Madame Leota, the Hitchhiking Ghosts and the decor throughout the mansion. Haunted Mansion buffs will also welcome the sight of the singing busts, which are actually voiced by the Dapper Dans Barbershop Quartet who perform in Disneyland. The famous ballroom scene from the ride is also shown to the audience briefly, however it is not as grand as it is in the ride.
The sets are rather beautiful, large, spacious, luxurious, yet old and musty at the same time. I remember visiting some of the sets at Walt Disney World at one point, and they were interesting to see, however I did wonder how many visitors had actually seen the film first.
In contrast to Pirates of the Caribbean (I make this comparison since the films were made around the same time and have the same basic idea behind them), there seems to be a lot of scenes and/or characters which have been taken directly from the attraction and used in the same form, rather than using them simply as a framework to build upon. Sadly, since the film relies upon the audience’s sense of nostalgia regarding the attraction, it severely chops down the number of viewers who will ‘get it’, and therefore again cuts down the re-watch ability of the movie. In fact, the ride which lasts only a few minutes, holds much more charm than this film ever could.
I am reviewing this film from the DVD version, (not the Blu-ray, I wouldn’t waste my money on that) which has a few underwhelming features. The one I headed to first was ‘Disney’s DVD Virtual Ride: The Haunted Mansion’, thinking, as you would, that it was something to do with the attraction rather than the film. Ok so they got me to click on it, but as soon as I realised that it was a very poor tour of the mansion in the film, it was swiftly turned off. The rest of the features include commentaries, a deleted scene, an outtakes reel, and one of those God awful music videos. If you’re looking for information on the ride, there is a feature that allows you to see photos and learn about the history of the attraction when you put the DVD into your computer.
I think children may enjoy this film, however for anyone else; it is certainly one to miss.
I give this movie 2 Tinks.
A Side Note: Director Guillermo Del Toro is a massive fan of the Haunted Mansion attraction, and has, at the time of writing, almost finished the screenplay for a remake of The Haunted Mansion. Of course, from a director such as Toro, great things are expected. Great, dark, things. Apparently the illusive Hatbox Ghost who was a part of the Disneyland attraction for not very long after it opened will be the villain in this film, and in honesty, I cannot wait to see it!