Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) is a real estate agent who knows he should make more time for his wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) and two children Michael (Marc John Jeffries) and Megan (Aree Davis), but his workload is so pressing that he simply cannot. Take today, when he makes a sale with his customary professionalism, promises to be back home soon for their anniversary, then gets sidetracked into another job, making him late once again. The next day, he avows, they will all go on holiday - but on the way there's this big old mansion he must take care of...
And so Jim learns a lesson about doing things for his family rather than relying on his work to get him through life, the end. Well, there was more to this than that, as this was the other Disney theme park ride movie, the unsuccessful one which was released about the same time as the first Pirates of the Caribbean, that certain blockbuster which spawned a multi-million dollar franchise, something The Haunted Mansion conspicuously failed to do. This has given the movie a pretty poor reputation ever since, but among those who either liked the ride it was drawn from or just liked a straightforward, spooky yarn, there has been worth found in it.
Basically, in cinematic terms this wasn't doing anything that Bud Abbott and Lou Costello weren't doing in their horror spoofs, only here there was a far higher budget for the special effects and makeup in place, the latter taken care of by that maestro of the art, Rick Baker. Thus the production was nothing if not glossy, indeed it looked very expensive, so if you were appreciative of art design you could pretty much sit through this watching that and not bothering about the story. Just as well, really, what with the narrative more keen on including the multiple references to the ride than conceiving of anything especially original on that front; plotwise this was noticeably underfed.
On the other hand, who goes on a ride looking for a solid plot? The aims for making the audience laugh and jump within the boundaries of a family movie were actually imaginatively created, so if you didn't much care about the central reincarnation concerns of the characters there was compensation in that Murphy, in his phase of trying to appeal to as many people in society as possible through his movies, made a dependable example of the jokey chiller lead, and even managed to wring a few laughs out of mildly humorous material, along with keeping energy levels high enough on the acting side to sustain what could have been a lot of alternating between skulking around and running around.
Well, it was that too, but the setpieces came thick and fast as one minute we could be meeting a gypsy in a crystal ball (Jennifer Tilly's head, basically) and the next watching Jim and his daughter try to wrest a precious key from the grasp of a bunch of reanimated zombies. That reincarnation premise, as old as the hills but at least keeping proceedings with traditional tone, sees Sara as the re-embodiment of the fiancée of the ghostly master of the house, Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), which the sinister, Boris Karloff-style butler (a sepulchral Terence Stamp) wishes to manage into some kind of curse breaking business. There was a nod to substance in that the black Sara's alter ego was murdered all those years ago for daring to want to marry the white Gracey, who has remained none the wiser even after all this time, but prickly questions of America's racist past were not laboured, only there if you wanted them. The sum of this was keeping it faithful to some very dusty and cobwebby horror conventions, oddly pleasing without being taxing. Music by Mark Mancina.