Welcome back, fellow bad horror junkies! Today, we will be exploring a combination of two of my favourite things: horror movies and Disney. Presenting Walt Disney Pictures Presents The Haunted Mansion!
The Haunted Mansion is one of the now many movies based off of Disney theme park rides, joining films such as The Pirates of the Caribbean and Tower of Terror (and we will get to THAT little adventure in due time). What’s interesting is, according to Disney, the ride has no official backstory. The only haunted house with a distinct narrative is Phantom Manor, the Disneyland Resort Paris version of Haunted Mansion. Phantom Manor follows the sad tale of a young bride, her lost love, and her restless spirit’s continued existence within the manor. However, since I haven’t been on either ride, I won’t be providing much in the way of comparison between the movie and the theme park version and what I do provide will be collected off the Internet, and therefore probably wrong.
This film actually got the green light from Disney in the 80s, but back then they would only allow Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, or Rick Moranis to play the lead, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of Ghostbusters. Instead, in 2003 we got the final version with a lead played by Eddie Murphy, who is a considerable downgrade from any of the options mentioned above. But I’ll insult him more later.
The movie opens with the words “welcome foolish mortals” in both text and voiceover, which the Internet tells me is a shout-out to the ride, but which feels like a very odd breaking of the fourth wall, especially since the audience is never addressed again during the movie. Are they implying the movie knows I’m here? Why? How? Then we have the opening credits played in between a few dialogue free scenes meant to provide a little backstory – a young woman writes a letter and then dies during a masked ball, she is discovered by a young man, and he, distraught, hangs himself some time later. Images of items such as candelabras and wine goblets float by as well, including three tarot cards: the Lovers, Death, and the 3 of Swords. Whoever made that design choice apparently knew that the 3 of Swords is the betrayal card, but not that the Death card does not indicate death, but rather change. Lack of research or assumptions that the audience is too dumb to catch it?
Cut to present day and we see a paper boy in front of the mansion. He is attacked by a ghostly face, and runs off, scattering fliers for a real estate business owned by our protagonists. The boy is never seen or mentioned in the film again.
Instead, we see Jim Evers, our protagonist for the evening, played, unfortunately, by Eddie Murphy and that dumb, cheesy grin I swear is written into all his acting contracts. As I’m sure you can guess, I don’t care much for Murphy. I’m sure he’s a nice person, but the face that his ENTIRE shtick is based on being as irritating as possible is . . . well, as irritating as possible. He’s also one of those actors that never seems to become one with the character, it’s always Eddie Murphy giving the same obnoxious, goofy performance of being loud and fast talking while pulling overdone silly faces. I’m always very aware I’m watching Eddie Murphy act, or more accurately, not act. He never seems to have any genuine motivation or any character beyond wacky and annoying.
So we see that Jim is a realtor who often neglects his wife Sara, played by the lovely Marsha Thomason, and his kids in favour of work. After missing his wedding anniversary, Jim promises to take Sara and their kids Megan and Michael on a weekend road trip. But when they receive a phone call from someone interested in selling a mansion Jim insists on detouring to meet with the prospective client. In short, Jim is a douche and Sara needs to get a new man.
But our characters make it to the mansion and we start checking boxes in our list of Standard Horror Movie Clichés:
Dilapidated once-beautiful home? Check
Iron gate that opens by itself? Check
Calling ravens? Check
Camera angle that shows they are being watched from inside the house? Check
Sudden thunderstorm? Check
While we play Horror Cliché Bingo, Murphy continues to show us how much of a jerk he can be. He complains, yells, opts to sweet talk to his car while ignoring his family, and is downright obnoxious when the family meets the mansion’s butler, Ramsley, played by Terence Stamp doing a not bad job of channeling Boris Karloff. The interactions between the stuffed shirt formality of Ramsley and the utter lack of tact and sophistication of Jim are obviously supposed to be funny, but really just feel very awkward and serve to make Ramsley, who is obviously meant to be villainous, sympathetic. If I had to listen to Eddie Murphy with a calm demeanor I’d become evil too.
Ramsley leads the Evers’ to the dining hall, where they meet Edward Gracey, the Master of the house (if he has any other titles they’re not given, I assumed he was a Lord or something). Nathaniel Parker has the role of Master Gracey and gives a very genuine and likeable performance. He claims to be the grandson of the man who built the mansion, but before any more details can be shared we check another box on our bingo cards for the storm washing out the roads, leaving the protagonists stranded and forced to spend the night.
Jim and Sara have a fight, well, Jim is his usual jerk self and Sara locks herself in the bathroom, which I have a feeling is probably what most of their relationship is like. Jim then manages to get himself trapped in a classic behind – the – bookcase hidden passage. Meanwhile Michael opens a music box (check your cards for creepy music box tune), and then sees a glowing blue ball that leads the children to the attic, where they find a painting of a woman who looks like Sara. They also encounter two domestics, Emma and Ezra, played by Dina Waters and one of my favourite actors Wallace Shawn, who is probably more familiar to you as Vizzini from The Princess Bride. Having him star opposite Eddie Murphy is like a perfect paring of a how – to and a how – to – not, as Shawn is a master of amusingly neurotic characters with bizarre personality tics and exaggerated reactions without the annoyance that comes from watching Murphy.
While all that is going on, Sara finds Master Gracey in the library, he’s gracious and charming and it’s clear that there is a slight bit of chemistry between them. Gracey offers to show Sara around the mansion and tells her the story of how it was built by his grandfather, who was in love with a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth (Disney seems to have a thing for love interests named Elizabeth, seeing as this movie came out the same year as Pirates of the Caribbean. ) For whatever reason they couldn’t be together, the only explanation we get it “they were from different worlds” but it’s been widely accepted that it’s because they were different races, which in that time period was the same thing. Elizabeth killed herself because of it and the despair drove Grandfather Gracey to suicide. What is never explained is how the current Gracey came to be if his grandfather killed himself, seemingly still young and unwed.
But unfortunately Jim is still in this movie, wandering a corridor filled with standard scary imagery. Including moving sculptures, ringing telephones in empty rooms, and mirrors that show you reflected as a rotting corpse. And then we encounter our first obvious ghost, Madame Leota, a fortune teller ghost in a crystal ball who speaks largely in rhyme. Murphy escapes her to find Megan and Michael along with Emma and Ezra, who are, obviously, also ghosts. They fill him in on the Elizabeth plotline, and reveal that Sara has been brought to the mansion because Gracey and Ramsley believe she is Elizabeth. Whether they think she’s the reincarnation of Elizabeth or related to her or how exactly she ‘is’ Elizabeth is never explained.
Madame Leota tells Jim he must find a key hidden in a crypt, prompting Ezra and Emma to take them on a ride in a hearse through the mansion’s cemetery. This is probably the coolest part of the movie. The ghost effects are pretty neat and although we’re never introduced to any of the ghosts, they do all have clear characters and are interesting to see. They also encounter three hitchhiking ghosts played by Jeremy Howard, Deep Roy, and Clayton Martinez. These three are characters in the ride, and were originally supporting characters in the movie, but were written out of the script aside from this brief cameo which builds to a rather underwhelming joke. Rather unfortunate, since this means more listening to Eddie Murphy.
Anyway, they find the crypt, get the key, are attacked by zombies, escape the crypt, but not before running into a series of busts which sing barbershop and which were apparently voiced by the Dapper Dans, a barbershop ground the performs in Disneyland. They get a mention here because when they’re first seen they’re singing “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” the ride’s theme song. Listen to Thurl Ravenscroft sing the original here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eavo08IXduQ
Another interesting bit of trivia is that the actors who portrayed the zombies actually attended “zombie school,” where they were tutored in all things undead. Things like how to move like a zombie, how to climb out of a coffin, and so on. I would totally put that on my resume as “professionally trained zombie skills”. The zombie training is discussed in the special features on the DVD, along with how the graveyard ghosts were designed.
So with the key acquired they can open a trunk in the attic and find a letter from Elizabeth to her love promising to marry him. So Elizabeth’s death wasn’t a suicide after all! Right on cue Ramsley arrives to admit to killing her to prevent Master Gracey from running off with her and destroying the family reputation, and to give Murphy his only good line in the movie
Jim: The butler did it? You got to be kidding me.
He explains that he plans to marry Sara to Master Gracey and then kill her so they can be together in death in order to break the curse. He throws Jim out of the mansion, literally (and I cheer inside) and locks Michael and Megan in a trunk to use as blackmail to force Sara to ‘be’ Elizabeth. He then locks the mansion down, somehow, to prevent Jim from getting back in. Jim does get back in (Boo!) by driving his car through a window. He rescues the kids after fighting off several animated suits of armour, which would be a really cool scene if it stayed on the screen for longer than a couple seconds at a time, and bursts into the wedding right at the “any objections” line. He rescues Sara and reveals the truth about Elizabeth to Master Gracey.
This is where things get potentially scary. I was already a horror movie buff when this came out so I was not affected, but the theatre I was in erupted in screams so it obviously scared somebody. When Gracey refuses to accept that Ramsley killed Elizabeth out of a sense of the greater good, Ramsley finally snaps, shouting “Damn You All to Hell!” while his eyes glow. This somehow causes all the ghosts from the graveyard to fly around the room like the evil spirits from “Night on Bald Mountain” in the much better Disney picture Fantasia. Then a giant fire – serpent comes out of the fireplace and drags Ramsley down, presumable to hell. He tries to drag Jim down with him, but Gracey saves him just in time (Boo!).
As soon as the action is over, Sara collapses from the poison Ramsley gave her during the wedding ceremony. This leaves Jim to cradle his dying wife in his arms as he gives the most underwhelming reaction ever, including the most emotionless “I love you” in the history of cinema. Then the glowing ball re-enters and . . . possesses Sara’s dead body? Again, not really explained. It turns out that the ghost ball is Elizabeth and she rises up into the air and floats there in a Jesus pose while giving your standard “he saved me” speech. Why did the other ghosts ranged from shimmery blue people to complete indistinguishable from real life except when they want to be intangible but Elizabeth was stuck as a Photoshop effect? Never mentioned. Why could she never interact with any of the other ghosts? Never explained. I guess you could argue she was trapped in the music box, but if that’s the case how did she get in there and why? Anyway, she exits Sara’s body and this somehow resurrects her, Gracey gives the Evers family the deed to the house, I guess he was just carrying that around with him, and he and Elizabeth ascend in a column of light to heaven, along with all the other ghosts (according to the Internet there are 999 ghosts but they never mention that in the movie, I don’t know if that’s counting Ramsley), happily ever afterlife.
We close with the family finally driving off on their vacation, along with the singing busts and Madam Leota. Why didn’t they go to heaven with the others? How should I know, the script writers probably don’t know either.
If you stick around after the credits, Madam Leota assures you that you’re more than welcome to come back, in fact “we’re dying to have you.”
So how does the film fair overall?
For starters, although it’s a Disney movie, it’s clearly not for little kids. A large part of the reason the theatre I was in erupted in screaming was that most of the kids in there were really young and the imagery in this movie can be creepy. It’s rated PG for a couple reasons, though to be fair I’m pretty sure they put the swearing in just to make sure it would get rated PG (by my count there are 2 scenes that use “hell”, 1 use of “damn”, 2 uses of “ass”, and 1 use of “crap”). As you all know, I have nothing against swearing and don’t consider certain words to be more or less “good” or “moral” than other words, but it feels really out of place in the script. True I wasn’t expecting cussing in a Disney movie, but it seems like they were afraid of getting a lower rating, so they made sure Eddie Murphy said “ass” a couple of times to bump it up. There’s also a joke at the beginning involving Sports Illustrated magazine, which has the same weird feeling of not being in sync with the rest of the movie. Why did they leave that joke in? Why was it written in the first place? It’s not really funny enough the get an adult reaction and I think it would go over the heads of a good portion of the younger audience.
Eddie Murphy is grating as usual, and I think the movie would be a hundred times better if ANYONE else was cast in the lead role. His performance is downright histrionic, it’s like watching a little kid jumping around and screaming just to ensure that all attention is on him at all times. Marsha Thomason gives a genuine performance and makes the chemistry between Sara and Edward Gracey feel very natural and understandable. Aree Davis makes for a great snarky know – it – all as Megan, and while Marc John Jefferies is kind of flat as Michael, the script didn’t give him much to go on. Nathaniel Parker does a good job of being gripped by passion without overdoing it, aided by his gracious, collected demeanor when he’s not having his heart broken. Dina Waters and Wallace Shawn make excellent comic relief as the bickering servant couple, and Jennifer Tilly does a good job as the snide-comment-spewing Madame Leota, although I feel like she gets a little too much screen time for such a minor character. And, good god, Terence Stamp does a phenomenal job as Ramsley. He makes the character intimidating, obviously evil, and yet, strangely, sympathetic. Although he’s done inhumane things, he did them for what he believes to be the right reasons and the greater good, and he’s frustrated that Gracey can’t see that he did it to protect him and his honour. Stamp really connects with the character and makes every gesture, ever expression, every pronunciation fit perfectly into his sophisticated yet diabolical persona. You hate him for, well, being the bad guy, but you feel for him because you know that he really did have good intentions even if they were horribly misguided, he was a product of his time, and he’s been living (afterliving?) not only with the secret of it, but with a secret resentment towards Gracey for not understanding. Even at the end when he reveals his evil side, it’s shown as him finally snapping from resentment and frustration and lashing out at the people who, to him, ruined his efforts to put right what he caused. Most of what comes through the character isn’t even in the script, it’s all in Stamp’s performance.
In terms of plot, the movie is okay, the plot isn’t very developed but it works as a basic ghost story. Stamp maybe does too good a job being obviously evil, so the ‘reveal’ that Ramsley killed Elizabeth isn’t much of a surprise. There are also a lot of plot holes. Why is Elizabeth somehow different from all the other ghosts? Why would Ramsley keep the letter that he knew would prove Elizabeth wanted to marry Edward? If Madame Leota knew about the key, why didn’t she tell one of the other ghosts? On that note, why is there a fortune telling gypsy living in the mansion? What exactly is the extent of Ramsley’s power? We see him use a variety of powers the other ghosts don’t seem to have, why does only he have these abilities? Why IS there a secret passageway inside the mansion?
But, in the end, this is a kid’s movie, it was made for kids, it’s directed at kids, and they’re going to have a lot fewer problems with it than I do. They’re also probably going to like Eddie Murphy more than I do. This is a good ‘starter’ scary movie for introducing kids to the genre, not too gruesome, no gore, genuinely creepy moments, an awesome bad guy, and a happy ending that should help prevent nightmares.
Wishing you ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beaties, Abbie G