Rob Minkoff, 2003, USA, 100 mins
Cast: Eddie Murphy Terence Stamp, Nathaniel Parker, Marsha Thomason, Jennifer Tilly, Wallace Shawn
As Evers, Murphy reprises his workaholic-dad-turned-loving-parent role from Daddy Day Care. His wife and real-estate partner (British born actress Marsha Thomason) is feeling neglected and, to heal the wounds, he promises her and the two kids a weekend by the lake. But the promise of a big payout leads him to stop at Gracey Manor, a huge, dilapidated mansion, peopled by the mysterious Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker, noted for the Inspector Lynley series) and his sinister butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp). Forced by a storm to stay the night, the family finds themselves facing a generations-old curse that hits them with everything from rotten zombies to digitally created skeleton bones.
It seems there was an incident during which the Master of the Manor killed himself just after his only true love - who happens to look just like Sara - committed suicide. Or did she? The late Master Gracey wants his girlfriend (Sara) back and Eddie and the kids face some ghostly creatures to save her.
Based as it is on a nine-minute Disney theme park ride, it's unfair to expect too much from The Haunted Mansion in terms of plot; the ride, after all, was all about the fun ghosts (all 999 of them). The film offers plenty of those - either computer generated or whipped up by legendary make-up artist Rick Baker - and the mansion itself, a baroque Gothic Xanadu, is sufficiently imposing. Unlike recent duds like The Cat In The Hat, the film never gets carried away with effects. Most of the tricks (flying instruments, Jennifer Tilley's head in a crystal ball) work, and a quaint 1980s-era Disney feel is maintained throughout. Mercifully, there's only one glaring pop-culture reference. Robert Sephton's sound design is impeccable and Mark Mancina's score has some truly creepy passages.
Indeed, The Haunted Mansion is best when it's being creepy. This should come as no surprise - it's a ghost story, after all - but Disney obviously wanted a family affair. And so what should be the film's trump card - a ghostly performance by Terence Stamp as the pale, Lugosi-esque Ramsley - is wasted. He's scary in parts, but any tension he creates is almost immediately stamped out by the rest of the cast, all of whom follow Murphy's lead in playing completely superficial characters.
When you take the film's hyperspeed edits into account, it begins to feel like Murphy and his crew, all of whom react with blasé wisecracks to things like rampaging corpses and the death of a loved one, are just there to anchor as many elaborate visuals as possible. They're like teenage riders in a theme park haunted house, who don't exactly know why they're there or why they find it so lame. If only this Haunted Mansion suffered from the same kind of vague, ghostly poorness, it might fly.