The Haunted Mansion (PG)
Walt Disney Pictures
When a Disney ride becomes a movie, there's not much hope that things will turn out as well as they do in this tame horror comedy aimed at the preteen set. Eddie Murphy is Jerry, an ambitious and cheesy realtor who sidetracks his family's vacation to make a deal on an old mansion overlooking a cemetery. Terence Stamp is effectively droll as the mansion's evil butler Ramsley, intent on forcing Murphy's beautiful wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) into marrying the lord of the creepy mansion. Filled with vaporizing ghosts, secret passages and zombies, The Haunted Mansion is an effortless joyride with Murphy as your comical guide.
The Haunted Mansion has an intoxicating lighting and production design that shimmers and glows with hues of blue, green and red that imply a treasure-trove of comic riches. There is a nod to Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) when Jerry comments on the size of the knockers on the mansion's giant doors. Murphy plays the line for all it's worth and comes away stirring up laughter. Murphy is a master of physical comedy and verbal delivery. He works well at holding the film's quick tempo with his body while modulating its witty dialogue in medium and bright timbres with his voice.
Stamp adds an equally light-footed contribution, with a mortician's look and similar bedside manner. Stamp articulates every syllable, vowel and consonant with a controlled vocal precision that more than hints at his character's potential wrath. Indeed, when Jerry and Ramsley come to blows, Stamp lets loose with a fury that demonstrates Ramsley's wellspring of strength and dark power to rule the house.
Animator Rob Minkoff makes a convincing debut in the realm of feature film directing following his feature animation debut with The Lion King. Minkoff embellishes Haunted Mansion's gothic visual themes with loving attention to scenes. There's a suicide-by-hanging-in-the-tower opener that rings with all of the soap opera shock tactics that Britain's Hammer Studios gave audiences with their Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee vampire movies in the late '50s and '60s. Minkoff maintains a refreshing formal predilection in his compositions to keep the B-movie storytelling specific to the film's simple yet humorous plotline.
A series of hallmark storybook devices work dutifully well for younger audiences, such as a quartet of harmonizing busts who burst into four-part harmony with songs inspired by what anyone last uttered. A giant green-glowing crystal ball houses Jennifer Tilly's (Bound) head as Madame Leota, a medusa inspired fortuneteller who gives Jerry helpful advice at rescuing his wife from the lusty clutches of Master Gracie (Nathaniel Parker). But it's the film's beautifully crafted zombies that ramp up the fright elements of the movie and send the film's climax off on a proper trajectory of ghoulish hokum.
Murphy is a bankable comedian in need of a Mel Brooks kind of writer to write films specifically for him. While The Haunted Mansion is a big improvement over Murphy's last disappointing film, Daddy Day Care, it doesn't bring anything from Murphy that we haven't already seen in his comedy. Murphy has kept his young good looks from the days of Walter Hill's 48 Hours (1982), and has polished his acting style to a high gloss, yet he remains typecast in roles that give him no cause to rise beyond stock comic habits. Nonetheless, Murphy rocks the funny house in The Haunted Mansion with the assistance of a strong ensemble cast.
-- Cole Smithey
Tinseltown, Cinemark 16