Originally opening at Disneyland in 1969, The Haunted Mansion was one of the last Disney theme park attractions overseen by Walt Disney himself. Two years later, a similar one opened in Walt Disney World. Originally it was going to be a run-down building, but Walt rejected the notion of a worn building in his brand new theme park. A trip to Winchester Mystery House — filled with straits to nowhere and doors that opened into brick walls — put Disney and his team on the right path.
The dark ride is one that has its own fans who obsess — and rightly so — over the history and multiple versions of the attraction. After Disney’s death in December 1966, the opening of the ride on August 12, 1969 finally brought numbers up to the theme park that has his name on it.
When you talk into the main room and hear the voice of Paul Frees intone, “When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls, whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still, that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight…” you know that you’re in for a ride unlike anything else. I am notorious for not enjoying theme parks and I’ve gone through The Haunted Mansion multiple times.
Following Tower of Terror, Mission to Mars, The Country Bears and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, this would be the fifth Disney attraction to get a movie of its own. Written by David Berenbaum (Elf, Zoom) and directed by Rob Minkoff (the co-director of The Lion King), it opened to near-universal scorn.
The film stars Eddie Murphy as Jim Evers, who along with his wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) runs a real estate business. He barely has time for their kids Michael and Megan and even sells a house instead of meeting his wife for their anniversary. To make up for it, he suggests a vacation before the occupants of Louisiana’s Gracey Manor ask him and his wife to help sell their gigantic home.
The real reason they are summoned is that the lord of the manor, Master Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) believes that Sara is the reincarnation of his long-dead wife Elizabeth. Yet for some reason, everyone else in the house — including Wallace Shawn as Ezra — is afraid of his butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp, who as always deserves better).
Eventually, Ramsley threatens the children and forces Sara into marrying Gracey before her husband returns to save them all and reveal the truth of what happened on the day of Gracey’s wedding.
As interesting and exciting as the original ride is, the movie is pretty lifeless. In an odd choice, it’s based on Phantom Manor, the version of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland Resort Paris, instead of the more familiar versions of the attraction. It’s also funny that Eddie Murphy had a routine about how he’d leave a haunted house immediately when he was a young and vital standup comic, but by 2003, he was willing to sleepwalk through this film.
But hey! Jennifer Tilly is Madame Leota and that has to count for something!