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Like the Disneyland ride upon which it's based, The Haunted Mansion opens with a spooky voice intoning, "Welcome, foolish mortals!" Scary objects, like candelabra and tarot cards, float in front of the screen, and we're then treated to a nicely wordless sequence from the 19th century, a Romeo and Juliet-type deal involving aristocrat Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker, last seen in Beverly Hills Ninja) and a masked woman we don't see clearly (for reasons that are fully explained later). She poisons herself, he hangs himself, and presumably this leads to the horror that haunts the mansion's walls, and so on and so forth.
Enter the present day. Following a cheap scare that serves to remind us that, indeed, the house is still haunted, we're introduced to Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy, sporting a cheesy grin possibly purloined from Mike Myers), a real estate agent who wants you to be happy "for Evers and Evers!" His wife, Sara (Black Knight's Marsha Thomason), appears to be a partner in the company, yet he seems to be doing all the work, and in the process missing his children's sports games and such, the defining trait of all movie dads about to receive comical comeuppance.
Evers gets his when a scary English-accented voice calls his wife on the phone and insists she come to Gracey Manor to sign a real estate deal. She demurs, but Jim can't resist a house of that caliber -- indeed, it's bigger and grander than the one standing in Disneyland's New Orleans Square -- so he decides that, en route to a weekend family vacation, they'll stop by and check it out. After driving through a creepy forest ("Are we still in America?" asks the youngest child) and looking out upon a huge CG-enhanced matte painting of a graveyard, the Evers family finds itself at the dinner table of the Gracey mansion, in the company of Edward and his odd butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp, made up to be an even creepier caricature of himself than usual).
The first rule of contemporary horror movies is that rain will flood the nearest bridge, and indeed that happens, forcing the Evers family to stay the night. What ensues is essentially a literal translation of the Disneyland ride, much more so than previous theme-park adaptations The Country Bears and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Evers and family wander through halls, past scary pictures that come to life, doors that breathe like Darth Vader, mirrors containing dubious reflections, and secret passages. They encounter any number of digital phantoms along the way, including the ride's hitchhiker ghosts and the disembodied Gypsy head Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly). For those of you in the flyover states who've never been able to afford a trip to the Disney parks, or even those of you who simply don't want to pay exorbitant admission prices, you finally get to share the fun. Kids love a good ghost story, but many cinematic ones are either R-rated or hopelessly cheesy like Casper. This movie should satisfy, at least until the disappointing climax.
If you had some concerns about the film based on its omnipresent trailer, relax. The preview was troublesome, both for its hectic pace and insinuation that the film would be nothing but Eddie Murphy bugging his eyes out and running from ghosts in a minstrel show manner befitting Mantan Moreland or Jar Jar Binks. Neither, thankfully, is the case -- what you saw represents an amalgam of the film's most intense sequences, including some that didn't even make the final cut, and both Murphy and the script are more modulated and paced than has been implied. The film even features an implicit rebuke of those who'd oppose racially mixed marriages -- hardly a racist gesture.
The Johnny Depp/Christopher Walken award for Outstanding Overacting in a Disney Theme Park Movie goes to Terence Stamp, for raising his voice several octaves above normal and adding a tremble to it while delivering lines like, "The storm has swollen the river!" We all know Stamp can do villains, whether Zod or Limey, but his Ramsley adds a weirdly passive-aggressive twist that feels new to the repertoire. Even Wallace Shawn, more or less reprising his role from The Princess Bride ("Unspeakable! Unspeakable!"), is no match for the camp Stamp.
It's unfortunate the kids aren't slightly better cast. Young Michael (Marc John Jefferies) is saddled with lines like, "This is against all my better judgment," which not only sound wrong, but are delivered like the youngster memorized them without understanding what they mean. Sister Megan (Aree Davis) is merely a one-note sourpuss, though she may have been hired for her willingness to swim underwater amongst corpses.
But while we're on the subject of unfortunate . . . the film's ending is unforgivable, since it's an ending that's been done many times before in similar movies, and has never worked. Someone should have figured it out by now.
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