Murphy's `Mansion': Nobody's house of fun

November 26, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It should be easy to dismiss the idea of movies based on amusement-park rides as creative bankruptcy of the most pallid sort; how could this possibly be good?

But then Disney confounded such conventional wisdom with last summer's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that wholeheartedly embraced its cliches even while breathing new life into them.

The Haunted Mansion is a return to form - bad form. Lifeless, unimaginative and almost determinedly uninspired, it's paint-by-numbers filmmaking at its dreariest. It even manages to make what should be its greatest strength, the casting of Eddie Murphy, one of its biggest drawbacks. The Murphy on display here seems to want nothing more than to be somewhere else. Not only is he restrained from unleashing his comic persona - Eddie Murray would have been pretty much as effective - but the movie keeps asking him to play sincere, and the best he can muster is cloying.

The portents are bad almost from the start, as the movie springs from Hollywood cliche No. 1: the dad who's so busy at his job that he has no time for his family. Jim Evers and his wife, Sara (Murphy and the lovely but underwritten Marsha Thomason), together form Evers Real Estate. After missing their anniversary dinner, Jim tries to make amends by scheduling a major family outing for them and their two kids.

But just as they're leaving, a phone call alerts them to yet another prospective deal. Jim assures everyone it'll just involve a 20-minute detour.

Guess what? He's wrong. Arriving at a decaying Victorian mansion deep in the heart of Louisiana bayou country, the Evers family is soon trapped by a torrential rain that forces an extended stay. While there, they are attended by the cadaverous butler, Ramsley (Terence Stamp), and watched by the lord of the manor, Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), who can't take his eye off Sara.

Then the alleged fun begins, as the various specters haunting the house start showing up. Turns out that Sara is the key to lifting a centuries-old curse that's keeping dozens of spirits from departing this world. With Sara incapacitated, it's left to Jim to come to the rescue, aided by his two children (Aree Davis and Marc John Jeffries) and scriptwriters too lazy to devise anything really all that perilous.

True, this is a movie for kids; we shouldn't expect H.P. Lovecraft. Still, would it be too much to ask for a genuine scare or two? And OK, maybe the movie is supposed to be more funny than scary. But it's neither. The only good lines come from Jennifer Tilly as a disembodied head.

The Haunted Mansion is afflicted with a fatal lack of enthusiasm; no one, from the stars to writer David Berenbaum (Elf) to director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) has given it much in the way of thought. Yes, the movie is harmless enough and should keep undemanding young people happy. But since when is that enough?

The Haunted Mansion

Starring Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Released by Walt Disney

Rated PG (frightening images, thematic elements and language)

Time 98 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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