In the moviemaking business, one out of three is a pretty good showing–like a batting average of .333. So one has to say that Disney is still doing pretty well with pictures made from its theme-park attractions. “The Country Bears” was a massive bomb, but “Pirates of the Caribbean” more than made up for it. Unhappily, “The Haunted Mansion” may be the worst of the bunch, though when one gets down to the level of this and the bears it’s difficult to decide. It’s a busy, over-produced special effects extravaganza that tries to be both funny and mildly scary but manages to be neither–a distinctly unexciting carnival ride. Perhaps the movie it most resembles is the dreary Bette Midler fiasco “Hocus Pocus” of a decade ago, which similarly combined lots of quirky ghoulishness and hammy slapstick. Would anybody in the world want to sit through that awful picture again?
This time around, though, it isn’t Midler who’s degraded, it’s Eddie Murphy. Murphy does about the only thing that seems to succeed for him nowadays–mug ferociously in frantic fare designed for family consumption–but in this case the returns are pretty dismal, far worse than in the “Nutty Professor” or “Doctor Dolittle” movies or even “Daddy Day Care.” He plays Jim Evers, a driven Louisiana real estate salesman, who drags his wife and partner Sara (Marsha Thomason) and kids Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and Megan (Aree Davis) to an isolated mansion on their way to a promised weekend getaway to confer with the owner about putting it up for sale. Unfortunately the place is occupied by ghosts. There’s a slow-moving, officious butler named Ramsley (Terence Stamp, gliding around mysteriously and speaking in such orotund, sepulchral tones that you’d swear his lines were recorded in a cistern), and his master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), a handsome aristocrat who believes that Sara is the reincarnation of his bride-to-be–a supposed suicide long ago–and wants to marry her to rekindle their eternal love. Beyond them are a couple of nattering servants, Ezra (Wallace Shawn) and Emma (Dina Waters), and a prophetic, disembodied female head encased in a green crystal ball. The last is played by Jennifer Tilly, who may be pleased that she’s sufficiently obscured by the colored mist as to be virtually unrecognizable, but might also have gotten only a partial paycheck since no more than her voice and visage were required.
There really isn’t much plot to “The Haunted Mansion”–it certainly lacks the humor and soul of “The Canterville Ghost,” for instance. It’s mostly just an extended chase, with most of the filmmakers’ attention devoted to the elaborate sets and cartoonish special effects. Some of these are supposed to be charmingly odd–like four stone busts in a cemetery who prove to be an unstoppable barbershop quartet–but never get much beyond simply odd. (When, at the end, the busts engage in a refrain that goes “Keep it down,” one wonders whether they’re referring to the viewer’s lunch.) And some are surprisingly poor (as well as ill-conceived, for a picture like this); the zombies who chase Evers and his kids around at one point look especially flimsy after the more imaginative representatives of the undead in “Pirates.” Apart from Stamp, whose solemnly wicked demeanor is fascinatingly awful (though much less amusing than his turn in “My Boss’s Daughter”), the cast can’t compete with them. Murphy looks even more desperate than he was in “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” and the rest of his family are simply pallid; Parker, who’s done some distinguished work in England, looks understandably pained in this company. All suffer from the heavy hand of Rob Minkoff, who seems to have lost every bit of the lightness he gave to the first “Stuart Little.”
Stamp’s Ramsley might be a terrible villain, but he exhibits some real wisdom from time to time. Toward the close, for example, the butler sagely remarks, “There are worse things than purgatory.” This movie is one of them.