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The Haunted Mansion

Eddie Murphy had a bit in his stand-up where he pointed out that you'd never find a black family in a haunted house movie. It went something like this, and forgive any paraphrase:

Eddie: What a great house. Nice neighborhood. The kids are happy…

Disembodied Voice: Get out!

Eddie: Too bad we can't stay.

And the audience would erupt in laughter. The character Murphy plays in The Haunted Mansion, however, shows none of that wisdom, and never earns as much laughter in the course of the movie.

Even without Murphy, this latest ride adaptation from Disney still wouldn't have much strength, though it does have promise. Over a spooky title sequence underscored by familiar ghostly themes, the history of Gracey Mansion (the one from Disneyworld's Magic Kingdom) plays out in montage. From that beginning, director Rob Minkoff revels in the lush production design of John Myhre, which cleverly pays homage to its origins as an amusement park attraction without overtly copying it.

But unfortunately, the script by David Berenbaum cannot say the same. Though it detours to establish Murphy's family, once the action returns to the mansion, it's less a story than a tour determined to get to every room of the ride, no matter how awkward the transition.

Only one sequence, involving animated corpses in a magnificent crypt, didn't look familiar. Rumor has it that it's from EuroDisney's Phantom Manor, but since not even Europeans have been there, it's hard to confirm.

Murphy plays realtor Jim Evers, straight out of the comedian's fast-talking hustler bag. A distracted family man, Jim means to be good to his wife and kids, but can't resist a deal. When his wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) receives an invitation to try to sell a decrepit Louisiana mansion, Jim is the one who insists they take a detour from a planned outing to at least check the place out "for just twenty minutes."

Once inside, cadaverous servants dressed in clothes more than a century out of date do nothing to tip the family off. Actually, that's not quite true: straw coward son Michael (Marc John Jeffries) knows better than to go into dark corners rife with spectral activity. Not that that will help; once the Evers are trapped in Gracey Mansion by a storm, the ghosts will find each and every one of them, especially Sara, the spitting image and possible reincarnation of Master Gracey's (Nathaniel Parker) dead love.

If you find yourself asking how everybody could be stuck as a ghost except for the one key character, give yourself a pat on the back and turn in your E Ticket. Otherwise, just go along for the ride.

It's almost the least of the plot holes in a horror film too afraid to be a horror film. Sometimes the ghosts appear white and spectral, but only when it conveniently serves the plot, or more importantly, when it serves to match the attraction. Things you accept at a Disney theme park raise some odd questions here, such as just what are all those international and ancient ghosts doing in a Louisiana cemetery?

Berenbaum doesn't seem to know, and even when he raises interesting questions himself, he never gets to answer them. Everybody talks about a curse, and Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly), the disembodied head in a crystal ball, refers to someone as having made the rules. Those rules, by the way, are also clearly being broken, as the Hitchhiking Ghosts are very disturbed by the possibility that Jim and his kids can see them. But none of that gets pursued because…well…there's more special effects to show.

At least Terence Stamp keeps his stiff upper lip through all these proceedings. As Master Gracey's manservant Ramsley, it's clear that he probably knows all the answers. But a gentleman's gentleman keeps secrets.

One secret he might have shared with Minkoff was how to build suspense. Maybe it's the need to keep it family friendly, but there's not a jump or a scare that hasn't been telegraphed or outright bungled. Even the zombies look pretty ineffective.

Just like their teeth, every possible edge to this story has been smoothed. Even the obligatory toilet humor really is just a joke about the existence of a toilet. It's clear that the dark secret of Gracey Mansion must have involved race, but here it's demurely an issue of "marrying beneath one's station." And yeah, I believe that it wouldn't be an issue at all in today's Louisiana. Oh, noooo.

Still, it's cheaper than buying a day pass to one of the parks. And children who have not yet made it to Anaheim or Orlando will probably be enthralled. There are also Disney fans that I know will not be dissuaded, and to you I say…

"Welcome, foolish mortals."


Derek McCaw

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