Using Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme ride as inspiration, Stuart Little director Rob Minkoff has created yet another assembly-line “horror-comedy” about what might happen if ghosts and people could actually interact. To set the stage for the paranormal collision, a vaporous butler places a telephone call to Sara Evers, one half of Evers & Evers Realty (“Because we want you to be happy for evers and evers”). He informs her that his master wishes to discuss the selling of his remote mansion. “He wishes to see you … alone,” he intones dryly.
Sara’s about to hang up on this oddball Prince-Albert-in-a-can prankster when her lesser half, Jim, swoops into the room and pushes her into trying to “get the account.” At least we can go see the place, he pleads. So, ignoring the butler’s instructions, Jim and Sara pack up their two children (Michael, 10, and Megan, 13) and drive through the swamps of southern Louisiana to the creepy old house the ghosts call home. Dad’s famous last words? “It’ll be 20 minutes, tops!” Twenty hours is more like it.
Thunder rolls, lighting flashes ferociously and rain gushes down in torrents as the dripping family is ushered into the cavernous foyer. The butler is greatly disappointed that Sara brought her clan with her, and secretly rallies his legion of long-expired compatriots to isolate her. He succeeds, and Sara is delivered into the care of Master Gracey. Gracey (dead for decades) uses their solitude to attempt to woo Sara (he thinks she is his deceased fiancée reincarnated), while kindlier apparitions send Jim and the kids on a macabre scavenger hunt with promises that upon its completion, they’ll be able to save Sara.
It’s a kids’ movie fallback: Dad must learn to value his family over his job. The Haunted Mansion plays this subplot out as if by rote, displaying a workaholic, money-hungry realtor finally coming to grips with the fact that he really does love his wife and children more than making that next big sale. (Interestingly, in this instance there is no fallout from Jim’s neglect. Nobody’s in trouble, doing drugs or in jail because Dad wasn’t around. Everybody’s healthy, happy and serene, with the exception of Michael, who’s afraid of spiders—hardly a blemish easily blamed on absentee parenting.) Naturally, Michael triumphs over his fear (he’s forced to ignore a horde of gigantic eight-leggers to save his dad and sister from zombies). The Evers family sticks up for one another, they watch each other’s backs and they express a deep desire to remain an intact family (read: don’t let the ghosts get us).
“Dad,” Michael blurts out, “I see dead people!” Ha ha. Get it? That’s the tone of the movie’s supernatural elements—half Casper, half Sixth Sense. Ghosts are everywhere in the house and its surrounding grounds, seemingly trapped on terra firma until Master Gracey brings order and closure to his pre-death love life. Sometimes everything’s fun and games, like when marching band instruments chase Jim through the hallways. Other times, things get creepier and much more serious:
A concluding line (and what happens thereafter) from the butler proves to be the movie’s most disturbing moment. Enraged at how things are turning out, he screams, “D–n you! D–n you all to hell!” Instantly, the floor behind him falls away revealing what the filmmakers want audiences to think of as the pit of hell. Evil spirits swirl into the room from all directions and a fiery devil ascends to claim what is his. Once all the “bad ghosts” are safely entombed in their eternal torment, hell’s gaping maw closes and the “good ghosts” begin ascending into heaven, twinkling like stars as they rise. A deceased maid races to retrieve her travel case, and when she’s told she can’t take it with her to heaven, she retorts, “The h— I can’t.” A ghost briefly possesses Sara’s body and apparently brings her back from the dead after she’s poisoned.
During Jim’s race to save Sara, he and Megan are forced to fight off dozens of decaying corpses who stumble out of their coffins bent on adding two more souls to their tortured numbers. Rotted flesh hangs off visible skeletons and dried gore clings to the bones of their decomposed faces as they gnash their teeth and blindly grope at their victims. Also included is a spirit medium (a disembodied head trapped in a large “crystal ball”) who gives Jim instructions. Tarot cards are used as a visual motif both in the body of the film and in the opening credits.
Upon first entering the mansion, Jim reaches up to lift the mammoth door knocker and remarks to his wife, “Wow, look at the size of those knockers.” When he learns that Master Gracey is trying to steal Sara, he exclaims, “You mean he’s trying to get jiggy with my wife? He’s trying to get with her?” When the spirit of Master Gracey’s fiancée takes over Sara’s body, Gracey kisses and hugs her (Michael and Megan are pretty uncomfortable watching “Mom” kiss some strange dead guy, and Jim finally taps Gracey on the shoulder to make him stop).
During the opening credits, tarot card drawings include a naked man and woman (full frontal nudity). Jim discovers that Michael has been ogling the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but only reacts by saying that if Michael is man enough to look at those kinds of pictures, then he should be man enough to kill a spider (audiences see the magazine’s cover model).
Jim gets attacked by flying musical instruments (a drum lands a direct hit on his noggin) after his chair levitates and he’s taken for a literal spin around the room. He also thrusts and parries with suits of medieval armor and is attacked by gory zombies. While in the mausoleum fighting the undead, he decapitates one with a torch and severs another’s arm with a door. One of the ghosts takes the family for a wild ride in a carriage pulled by skeletal horses. After crashing through one of the mansion’s rock walls, they drive past scores of wispy apparitions who are seen in the state in which they died. Audiences see a ghost get shot with a crossbow and a corpse dangling from a noose. Jim tries to fight with the butler, but his punches find only thin air as the ghost disappears and reappears at will. Michael and Megan are locked in a storage chest and used as hostages to make Sara do what the ghosts want her to do. To regain access to the mansion after being thrown out (through an upstairs window), Jim smashes at a magically reinforced window with an iron rod, then revs up his BMW and crashes it through the wall. Master Gracey believes his fiancée committed suicide by drinking poison (flashback images are seen) and Sara is forced to drink poison so that she will join Gracey in the afterlife. The butler tries to drag Jim down into hell with him.
God’s name is used as an interjection twice. The butler yells “d–n” twice. “H—” is used as a profanity. “Crap” and “a–” are used a couple of times each. (When Jim uses the word “crap,” Michael parrots it back to him—Jim chides him for it.)
Two of Jim’s clients down tropical drinks, and urge him to drink with them. When he asks for a ginger ale, they laugh, saying, “That’s not a real drink!” Ghosts also drink, and flashbacks to Victorian-era parties include alcohol use. Jim accepts hard liquor from the butler and steals a cigar from Master Gracey.
The Haunted Mansion is Disney’s third (recent) attempt at turning theme park attractions into movies. The quality of the first, The Country Bears, left a lot to be desired. The second, Pirates of the Caribbean, wowed and surprised just about everybody who saw it. This one ranks somewhere in-between, existing on the same plane as the likes of Beetlejuice and Jumanji. It’s entertaining, in a strictly mindless manner. It’s visually stimulating, when it’s not filling the screen with corpses. It’s even endearing and sweet, albeit with a saccharine aftertaste.
As for content, Disney gives parents plenty of reasons not to haul the kiddos into the multiplex for this one (not the least of which are nightmare-inducing zombies, spooky ghouls, mild profanity and sexual references). It’s the movie’s flagrant misuse of the spiritual dimension, though, that put me off the most. Heaven and hell are used as preternatural tent pegs grounding what happens throughout the movie to our real world experience rather than some non-specific imaginary land of magical occurrences. That fundamentally changes the way children react emotionally and spiritually to what they see. And the lessons taught are far from biblical. I knew what my verdict was going to be the second the butler’s hateful curses cued the fire from below: Haunt some other holiday movie, this Mansion‘s no bargain.