“The Haunted Mansion” is no “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But not every movie based on a Disney theme-park ride is lucky enough to have Johnny Depp as its star.
In his place this time, we get Eddie Murphy, grinning ear-to-ear as Jim Evers, a workaholic real-estate agent who has been neglecting his fed-up wife, Sara (Marsha Thomason ), and their two kids: arachnophobic Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and smart-mouth Megan (Aree Davis).
Murphy puts all his energy into the character, especially when the family visits a haunted house that’s been put on the market, yet Jim still comes off as a one-note role. Ditto for Jefferies and Thomason’s sitcom characters, though Davis has her moments as the teenager who won’t let dad get away with his tired generation-gap routines.
Consistently more interesting are Terence Stamp as Ramsley, a ghoulish, parched-mouth butler who sounds like Boris Karloff, and Nathaniel Parker as Master Gracey, a morbid romantic who could have stepped out of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Gracey is fixated on a lost love who apparently committed suicide (and looked a lot like Sara), while Ramsley is fixated on Gracey’s fixation.
From the moment they greet the Evers, Stamp and Parker always play it straight, never winking at the audience, as they gradually establish just how distant their world is from the one the Evers family inhabits. The same goes for Wallace Shawn, in a too-brief role as a servant who has also been a longtime resident of the house. They sometimes appear to be acting in a different, stranger, better picture.
It’s certainly a scarier one than “The Haunted Mansion,” which tries too hard to position itself as a Murphy comedy. One of the most appealing aspects of the original Disneyland attraction was its genuine spookiness, which reached its peak with a ride through a hall populated by dancing, apparently three-dimensional ghosts.
The filmmakers do try to reproduce that visual effect, especially in the dreamy prologue and a couple of later sequences. Mona May’s costumes and Rick Baker’s makeup strike just the right whimsical/decadent note. The elaborate production design by John Myhre, who won an Oscar for “Chicago” earlier this year, frequently outshines all the other elements in the picture.
“Are we still in America?” asks one of the kids as they explore the mansion. Indeed.
The director, Rob Minkoff, who made the “Stuart Little” movies, is clearly Myhre’s accomplice in focusing on the sets and the curious ways in which the characters interact with them. Stamp’s entrance, as he emerges from a darkened corridor, is breathtakingly weird. So is Parker’s first appearance, which is handled quite differently.
Alas, David Berenbaum’s screenplay doesn’t allow these moments enough room to sink in; he keeps dragging the Evers’ dilemmas back into the story. As he demonstrated with his script for “Elf,” Berenbaum does have a knack for collecting and freshening genre cliches, but he’s also limited by them. Both scripts end up trapped in their own sap.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com