‘Haunted Mansion:’ a look back at a childhood horror

October 23, 2020

In my ongoing search for horror movies appropriate for every audience, I have been looking back at movies that scared me as a young child that I have continuously returned to as I have gotten older. “Haunted Mansion,” the movie famously based on a Disneyland ride, has served alongside “Monster House” and the opening scene of “Ghostbusters” in scaring the living daylights out of elementary schoolers time and time again. Upon rewatching, it proved itself to be a funny, entertaining time capsule that pays homage to a since practically forgotten genre of horror: gothic expressionism. The movie fully indulges this aesthetic, which is heavily associated with the original Nosferatu and was once a staple of vampire and ghost movies that erred toward the Victorian look. “Haunted Mansion” is a cute movie full of light scares, surprisingly sympathetic characters, and an exciting setting that brings the movie to life.

“Haunted Mansion” is a children’s movie with a wonderfully dark atmosphere. The opening credits scene is weirdly eerie, consisting of a Victorian ball inside an immaculate mansion wherein two rather graphic deaths take place. A woman is poisoned, followed by her lover hanging himself. The mansion quickly grows decrepit and spooky as a result, and the introduction concludes with the emotional scarring of a modern day child when he looks through the property’s rusty gates. From here we are introduced to Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy), a workaholic real estate agent, his wife Sara (Marsha Thomason), who works as his real estate partner, and their two children. As part of a promise to make more time for his family, Jim decides to take them for a weekend vacation. This plan is quickly uprooted by the possibility of Jim getting the listing for a massive mansion which, upon visiting, turns out to be far more bizarre then he was expecting. As the family explores, and eventually become trapped within the mansion, the contrast between normal suburban family and gothic manor teeming with people straight out of the 1800s becomes stark in very comedic ways.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that I enjoy this movie because I have a connection to it. When I was made to watch “Aladdin” for the first time as an 18-year-old, I found it boring, cheesy and ugly. When I watched “Haunted Mansion” for the 30th time as an 18-year-old, it brought me back to my childhood, when everything was extremely funny or extremely scary or extremely bad and there was no nuance in my opinions. I, as an adult, cannot call this a great movie. I cannot even call it a great children’s horror movie: the plot is extremely simple and the dialogue is awkward and lacks depth. 

The humor is pretty empty outside of Eddie Murphy’s reprisal of his role in “Daddy Day Care,” but it is cute and I remember being scared of those zombies and laughing at the gypsy in the glass ball. I cannot call this movie bad, but I also cannot say that someone watching it for the first time above the age of 11 will love it as I do.

As the movie continues, it breaks off into three storylines. Jim goes off with the butler to find out more about the owner of the house, the kids, Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and Megan (Aree Davis), are led around the mansion by an orb of light and Sara is left alone with the master of the house, Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker). As Jim and the kids explore the mansion, it becomes clear that a sinister plot is afoot surrounding Sara. Everyone living and working in the mansion are actually ghosts, doomed to roam the mortal world until Master Gracey is reunited with his murdered love, Elizabeth, who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Sara. Through the family’s time exploring the mansion and the graveyard that takes up the estate’s exterior, the positives of this film shine through.

“Haunted Mansion” is memorable because of its characters. Dialogue may not be its strong suit, but the characters are. It is very quick to establish and create emotional drives within each character. This is necessary in a kids movie to create a clear good guy-bad guy dynamic, but the characters are fleshed out to the point that I care about the well-being of secondary characters as much as that of the central cast. The ghost couple that work in the mansion under the butler are characters I always remember. They are not in much of the movie but when they are they have a fantastic dynamic and set the scene for our leads in quirky fun ways, like giving Jim and his kids a ride on a horse drawn carriage through a graveyard overflowing with ghosts and treating the whole situation so normally. These are side characters who have minimal impact on the plot, but their ending is so satisfying.

Another major plus of this movie is the atmosphere, which is really consistent and cool. I hate sexy Victorian vampire movies. They are stylistic in the worst ways, the characters take themselves too seriously and I’m just not a big fan of vampires in dramatic roles, so to see that exact aesthetic draped around a goofy Halloween movie makes me very happy. Disney’s budget for clear tonal backdrops will always serve to raise a movie up. 

Even if the story and script are lacking, you will not be bored because the set, costumes and soundtrack are so intriguing. Watch this movie if you have fond memories of “Haunted Mansion,” and definitely do so with a group. If this one was not in your childhood rotation of DVDs, feel no obligation to watch it. You are not missing out on some hidden Disney masterpiece, but it is a fun ride nonetheless.

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