Every children’s movie should begin with a suicide and a subsequent hanging. It’s with the utmost casual tone The Haunted Mansion opens, upon billing us about to see the film as “foolish mortals” before hurling animated keys and fog our way and presenting us with a complicated prologue I’m not sure many members of its target audience will quite understand. But hey, Eddie Murphy shows hope soon after to remind us it’s all okay.
Murphy plays Jim Evers, a workaholic Realtor who agrees to take his wife and business partner, Sara (Marsha Thomason), and their two children, Michael and Megan (Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis), on an impromptu family excursion for the weekend. Predictably, Jim gets sidetracked by the chance to sell an age-old Victorian-era mansion in the middle of the woods, and takes a slight detour. Sara was specifically invited to visit the Gracey Mansion, which comes built with creaky iron gates and a backyard cemetery, but the incredibly ambitious Jim usurps her by elbowing his way into the home.
Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) greets them soon after their arrival, and instantly has a noticeable fascination with Sara while the group gets acquainted with the butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) and the servant couple (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters). Flashbacks contextualize that Gracey was in love with a woman who looked exactly like Sara many decades ago, and when they couldn’t marry, they both killed themselves, which, too, explains why Gracey is a spirit, still in search of a suitable body in which his former lover would enter.
Immediately, it’s intriguing to find Eddie Murphy playing the straight-man in what is essentially a horror playground of cobwebs, flailing curtains, shifty hallways, and eerie figures. But Murphy, the skilled comic he is, finds a manner in which his straight-as-an-arrow presence can be both charmingly amusing as well as appropriately funny, despite much of the mischief being done onto him as opposed to him causing it. If there’s any shortcoming in The Haunted Mansion, it’s that there’s nothing really too scary or unsettling, for everything has too much of a gee-whiz, light-hearted edge. The film could’ve taken more of a Goosebumps route with some actual scares as opposed to the Are You Afraid of the Dark? route, where everything is just a little unnerving but nothing is particularly scary because it’s ultimately too silly. This definitely has the aura of a Disney Channel Movie that got lucky that its budget ballooned high enough to warrant a theatrical release.
The Haunted Mansion is indeed based on the decades-old Disney theme park attraction, a point of interest in itself, and the set design is quite immaculate. The titular residence is a stately example of how fright can be conjured by architecture and not simply ancillary scare tactics. The pacing itself is never too manic, and Murphy’s presence and adoption of the aforementioned straight-man archetype almost feels like it’s grounding the whole thing.
Of all the modestly memorable, creepy characters — Jennifer Tilly as a gypsy woman whose disembodied head is encased in a crystal ball and Wallace Shawn as an old-era footman — the Singing Busts are by far my favorite. Portrayed by the Dapper Dans, the four heads sing whatever is spoken around them, and their harmonizing reminds me of the Statler Brothers. They’re just so much fun to watch. It plays as a truly great aside, which The Haunted Mansion is at heart. A pleasant, Halloween-centered diversion that earns its place in the catalog of children’s horror.
NOTE: As of this writing, The Haunted Mansion is streaming on Disney+
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Marsha Thomason, Marc John Jefferies, Aree Davis, Nathaniel Parker, Terence Stamp, Wallace Shawn, Jennifer Tilly, Dina Walters, and the Dapper Dans. Directed by: Rob Minkoff.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!