THE HAUNTED MANSION
Directed By: Rob Minkoff
Produced By: Andrew Gunn & Don Hahn
Written By: David Berenbaum
Premiered On: November 26, 2003
Distribution By: Buena Vista Pictures
While not being the first of the films made based on an attraction, that honor actually belongs to a film that was made several years before this one that I’ll be touching on later this week, this film in particular is… A film of its era as it were. The early 2000’s were a… odd time for films but as I am by no means an expert, nor an actual film historian or reviewer of great experience, I’ll just leave it at that.
In the case of The Haunted Mansion it was part of the “dying days” of a particular film actor’s career insomuch that this actor in particular had been staring in films that were of a rather… poor… quality compared to earlier works and where most, if not all, of the usual humor involved was either incredibly forced or just plain unfunny.
Thus we encounter the first true problem of this film. For whatever reason that I cannot grasp, a film based on an attraction that hosts 999 happy haunts inside a mansion that features a lot of macabre and grim works with dashes of comedy has been turned to a straight up comedy that takes virtually all of the scares out save for a few moments. Moments, not scenes.
The basic premise of the film goes that a young man was set to marry the love of this life despite that she was of a different class and, sad as it is to admit but this was a thing back in the time, different coloration than he. Unfortunately, on the day of her wedding the bride apparently committed suicide and, in his grief, so too did the master of the mansion and in the years following his death, he and all those whom resided and perished found their spirits trapped and confined to the property.
However, fortune seemed to smile in favor of these poor, unfortunate souls as an add for a married pair of real estate agents happens to finds its way through the gates and into the hands of the long dead master of the house.
Cue Eddie Murphy, the stereotypical workaholic father figure that I am so unbelievably sick of seeing in movies that I will literally get up and dance the Macarena if I happen across a film that showcases a workaholic mother. Don’t doubt me, I dang well came close to doing this for Storks when both the parents proved to be workaholics instead of just the one and the father was the first to succumb to actually being there for his kid.
Sorry, got off on a tangent there, where was I? Ah, yes, cue Eddie Murphy forgetting his anniversary and in trying to apologize to his wife, and two kids because goodness knows that’s the American ideal right there, he decides to take them out on a trip to the cabin by the lake. Whose route just so happens to go past Gracey Manor whose current owner just so happened to have called earlier about the possibility of selling said house well… Coincidences do happen.
Anyway, a long film made short, Murphy finds out that the so-called owner of the mansion has not only been pushing up daisies in every literal sense of that phrase but the guy’s would-be-wife bares a remarkable resemblance to Murphy’s own. From there it’s a wild and oh so unnecessarily zany ride throughout the mansion to bring an end to the curse that keeps the dead trapped and bringing to justice a murderer and their victim of romantic tragedy several decades past.
If this film had been strictly about the murder mystery, having actual drama of making the still living cast, be they a family or simply the best of best buddies, fight for their freedom or suffer the penalty of being added to the already vast number of haunts in the mansion itself, I’d greatly enjoy this movie.
Instead… we get a movie that outright riffs itself at any available opportunity. From Murphy’s son quoting the popular, and freaking over-done, line of seeing dead people in a literal cemetery filled with celebrating phantasms and spooks, to the oh-so-original reveal that the murderer was the butler.
Yes. The butler did it. True story.
What makes the whole reveal more baffling than anything else is that after the guy reveals he did it to protect the “sanctity” of the Gracey family and to prevent his master from “falling to ruin” he proclaims that they can all go to Hell and… Well, to put it simply the freaking fireplace tears itself asunder revealing a literal pit leading straight to the infernal heart of Hell itself before a fiery demonic dragon snatches the guy up and proceeds to drag him down. The curse itself is broken when Master Gracey is at last reunited with his lost love and together they lead the ghastly precession up towards the long awaited Heaven.
That… oh man… I just… I get that love is a power unlike any other, the whole entire wars were born and brought low by love, but come on… What’s especially weird, and admittedly stupid, is that Madame Leota and the ghosts trapped within busts of themselves, otherwise known simply as the Singing Busts, are still in the mortal realm. More to the point, the Murphy family takes the ghosts with them on their vacation alongside other trinkets and knickknacks from the mansion.
I just… What, exactly, are they going to do with them? Keep them at their house? The kids, and Murphy, proclaim the ceaseless singing of the busts to be annoying and the children especially don’t care for Leota’s narrative expositions, so the only thing I can think of is that they’re planning on selling these trapped souls off to the nearest Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. That or sell ‘em all on eBay.
Overall… this movie was trying to create a story for an attraction that… technically does not have one insomuch that the Haunted Mansion attractions located in Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland have stories for every individual ghost has a story behind their untimely demise, oftentimes a very darkly comedic tale at that.
There are common elements between them though such as the Master of the Mansion having hanged himself in the front foyer of the estate, Madame Leota and her conjuring of spectral powers in her chambers, a cabal of ghosts celebrating unawares of their demise, a black widow bride reciting her wedding vows as she weighs a bloody axe in her hand, and a trio of hitchhiking ghosts that want a ride out of dodge even if they have invisibly follow you to do it.
However, that’s just for those parks specifically. Hong Kong Disneyland holds the Mystic Manor, which, to be fair, is more of a manor wherein hundreds of mystical artifacts inadvertently go haywire and Paris Disneyland has the Phantom Manor and let me tell you ladies and gentlemen, there is no scarier and tragic a tale than that of the Bride of Phantom Manor and the titular Phantom himself who seeks dominion over her and all whom dare to enter the manor grounds even in death.
As I understand it, it was part of the bargain for the creation of Paris Disneyland that most of the attractions couldn’t be carbon copies of already existing Disney attractions and that they had to be wholly unique to the park itself and such was done for the Phantom Manor, indirectly tying it to the Parisian equivalent of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Out of the multitudes of the Haunted Mansion attraction, the Phantom Manor is one of the darkest and outright scariest of them all and I would love to see it be brought to film in the future. As it is, we must settle for this comedic interpretation of a ride that, quite frankly, deserved far more than this and has since gotten it in the form of a mini-series released by Marvel Comics.