Haunted Mansion, The (2003) ***
Directed by Rob Minkoff. Written by David Berenbaum. Photography, Remi Adefarasin. Editing, Priscilla Nedd Friendly; music by Mark Mancina. Production design, John Myhre. Producers, Don Hahn & Andrew Gubb. Cast: Eddie Murphy (Jim Evers), Terence Stamp (Ramsley), Nathaniel Parker (Master Gracey), Marsha Thomason (Sara Evers), Jennifer Tilly (Madame Leota) Wallace Shawn (Ezra), Marc John Jefferies (Michael), Aree Davis (Megan) et al. Released by Disney & Buena Vista. 98 minutes. PG.
Eddie Murphy is an extraordinary, often unique and terrific actor. TV's "Saturday Night Live" launched him. His self assurance in (among others) the "48 Hours" and "Beverly Hills Cop" films; his ensemble playing in "Trading Places"; his interacting with Arsenio Hall in "Coming to America"; his metamorphoses in "Bowfinger" and the "The Nutty Professor" pictures; his con man turned the people's champion in the underrated "The Distinguished Gentleman" (a nice, distant twist on "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") and much else are little or big marvels.
Yes, there have been lesser movies and roles-- even duds. And there was a time when Murphy's success went to his head, engendered megalomania, hordes of minions, and a bad reputation. Nonetheless, he is a one-of-a-kind performer.
"The Haunted Mansion" is something new, not "An Eddie Murphy movie" in the old sense. He is very good in it, but his persona and performance come second to the film's special effects.
He plays a go-getting, canny, tricky and successful New Orleans realtor. The early sequences are amusingly Murphyish. He has a lovely wife and partner, Sara (Marsha Thomason); cute kids; and a severe case of workaholism. Since he can't say "no" to any opportunity, Sara feels that the family is neglected. She exacts from her husband a family outing. They're off -- but then Jim wants a brief stop within tropical bayous to visit a stately home for sale.
That's the Gracey Mansion, a gag name you may miss if you're not a New Yorker, since the Gracie Mansion is an historic NYC landmark and the official residence of mayors.
===╦EDITOR PLEASE NOTE: Gracey and Gracie spellings are correct┴====
On the Louisiana estate, the building turns out to be a super-Gothic, mysterious abode that houses butler-majordomo (show-stealing Terence Stamp), owner Master Gracey (British TV actor Nathaniel Parker), servants including Wallace Shawn, and a slew of others critters. They are all living ghosts but of different types. Stamp and Parker are more flesh-and bones than the rest. Soothsayer Jennifer Tilley -head only-is imprisoned inside a crystal ball from which she dispenses advice. Yes, there is a raven, too.
The place is so complex and so heavily ornate that you might call it The Ultimate Anti-Bauhaus. In pre-Nazi Germany the Bauhaus was an exceptionally influential art and design school. World-wide, it contributed enormously to modernism, from efficient, clean-lines, uncluttered, avant-garde, bare-bones architecture to furniture and down to utensils such as the forks and spoons prevalent to this day. Its celebrated motto was "less is more." The mansion is the antithesis, a paragon of "more is more, and then some." At random, let me point to classical paintings such as duplicates of J-L.David's early 1800s "Madame Recamier" and "Napoleon."
The movie opens with a flashback montage to a huge Masked Ball, an orgy of dresses, clothing and uniforms that also belong to the early 1800s. The story's flashbacks make it semi-clear that in the period of that ball Gracey and his lady-love Elizabeth wanted to marry, but for reasons clear as mud (I opt for class distinctions) they could not. So she killed herself. Then he killed himself. Now, the gimmick (well-worn in movies) is that Sara is the spittin' image of Elizabeth.
Telling what happens would add no sense to nonsense. It's all in the visuals with their extravagant, creative sets and critters. Even for veteran viewers of SFX (special effects) everything is fantastic (in both senses), more than abundant, far more amusing than frightening--such as a barbershop quartet of ghostly, singing sculptures. Yes, there is also a raven.
From mirrors that do more than reflect to corpses, from medieval-like armor-clad warriors to a host of other curiosities, the filmmakers' imagination runs non-stop. But all this is so blatantly tongue-in-cheek that the scare level is zero for adults and probably very low for pre-teen viewers.
Persons who desperately want to read a moral in this work-- e.g. the realtor realizes how much he neglected his family--are fishing in the wrong waters. "Haunted" is first, middle and last a shaggy-ghost story. As an inventive fantasy it works very well, shows a minimum of Murphyisms - and somewhat more Wallace Shawn-isms.
Note that time is stood on its head here, as when Master Gracey keeps mentioning "my grandfather" instead of "my great-great-great grandfather." But who cares? True, past a certain point the masterful SFX are so many that they may induce some boredom. Still, their plethora can be excused as an unwillingness of filmmakers who would hate throwing many of their inventions onto the cutting-room floor. It's only human.