On one of comedian Eddie Murphy’s old albums he does a bit about how black people would never stick around a haunted house the way the white couple did in the horror classic The Amityville Horror. Murphy should have heeded his own advice and just turned around and left when offered the script to the comedy The Haunted Mansion.
Murphy stars as Jim Evers a successful real estate agent, whose workaholic tendencies are being to be a strain on his wife and business partner Sarah (Marsha Thomason) and their two children (Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis). Although agreeing to a family weekend vacation, he can’t resist stopping at an old mansion whose owner he’s been told wants to sell. However, a sudden rainstorm traps the family for the night and Jim soon discovers that all is not right in the creepy old house. For one thing, it’s owner Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), his butler Ramsley (Terrence Stamp) and the rest of the household staff are ghosts and that Gracey seems to think that Sarah is actually his long dead love Elizabeth. Jim and his children must unravel the mystery of Elizabeth’s death before it becomes too late for them all.
Like this past summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion is based on a popular Walt Disney theme park ride. Both have elements of horror mixed into their stories, but only Pirates manages to make it mesh well with that film’s high adventure storyline. Haunted Mansion, however, is a jumbled mess. The mystery elements are fairly straightforward and don’t really demand much from the viewer, young or old. Although touted as a comedy, most of the jokes fall flat, though blame for that can be laid firmly on Murphy’s shoulders.
Logic holes abound in the script. Why are the other two servants (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters in criminally underdeveloped roles) haunting the house? Was it just plain chance that Sarah looks exactly like the long dead Elizabeth or is there a familial connection? Why would a wealthy family turn their entire back yard into a cemetery?
Like Pirates Of The Caribbean, Haunted Mansion does have its fair share of nods towards the ride that spawned it. Pirates made these tips of the hat subtle and organic in the film. The ones in Haunted Mansion feel forced into the script and in a few instances, most notably the barbershop quartet singing busts and the ghostly hitchhikers, grind the film to a halt.
Visually the film is impressive. The Mansion sets are creepy and radiate a world-weariness that mirrors that of its ghostly occupants. The ghost effects are nice, particularly when a spirit is seen moving quickly. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot in the screenplay to hold up the effects. For the most part, the ghost segments are not too scary for the kiddie audience. One sequence involving Murphy and a crypt full of attacking zombies may be too intense for some of the youngest viewers, in addition to feeling wildly out of place tonally with the rest of the picture.
Eddie Murphy plays the part of a workaholic real estate agent way too broadly, throwing away far too many one liners that could have garnered laughs. It’s a sad state when Murphy is outperformed in the comedy department by his two young co-stars.