-“In which I re-write “The haunted Mansion” and complain a great deal”- OR – “The Haunted Mansion: how it should have ended”-
I have just finished watching “Disney’s The Haunted Mansion”, I was thinking how many opportunities the script writers missed to write a genuinely entertaining and challenging script, all by omitting one character.
Now don’t get me wrong “The Haunted Mansion” is a decent enough film in its way, it ticked all the boxes required of it; positive racial stereotyping & the multi cultural element, Hard working couple still being adequate parents i.e. the positive side of “The American dream”, cute relatable kids, enough ‘mature’ humor to hold the interest of adult viewers, generating fresh interest for a neglected Disney world attraction. Plot wise it has just enough character development to provide the journey of self discovery element that seems to have become pretty much a necessity in any kid’s movie, (seriously what was wrong with the protagonist having an epic adventure and just having a blast without the need of some over arching moral lesson? But that is a whole other blog in itself); the father (surprise, surprise) concentrates on work too much and neglects their spousal and parental duties, the son needs to learn to overcome their fear, the mother needs to regain her faith as a wife (way to shake off the gender stereotyping accusations Disney), the daughter needs too, well nothing really she is the most stable member of this family. For the most part the whole journey of discovery is left to the men, while the women are the driving force of the movie, but done in such a way that they are almost entirely relegated to supporting characters throughout the whole affair, occasionally pointing out what the obvious things that the men have missed but taking none of the credit themselves (but this too is a rant for another day).
So what character would I remove? The father, not just because Eddie Murphy hasn’t made a good movie since the glory days of “The Golden Child” and the “Beverly hills cop” franchise (but god is his performance grating in this film, quite often at odds with and detracting from the emotive direction of any scene you care to mention), but I must admit the idea of omitting him from the film is what started my thought progression, but without the central male roll it provides scope for some real emotional, moral and philosophical quandaries, who’s inclusion would have made a merely adequate movie memorable.
Let me start my explanation with a brief overview of the film as it stands:
Over the introduction credits we are shown disconnected glimpses into the past; a masked ball, couples, a note written and secretly delivered, a poisoned glass, an unmasked man rushes to the side of the glasses owner and cradles their corpse, the man’s decent into despair and ultimate suicide by hanging.
The film opens by introducing us to an ‘average’ family; father works too hard at his real-estate job and consequently neglects his wife and children, nothing too severe some missed events and broken dates, the wife puts up with the neglect but voices her displeasure, so far so mundane. Their son is apparently afraid of spiders; the father inexpertly attempts to make his son more ‘manly,’ their daughter who is very matter of fact and straight spoken of one so young, deals with the spider for her brother but makes it clear that she thinks she shouldn’t have to and he stop worrying about them.
One mystery phone call and an offer “Too good to miss” later and the family weekend away becomes a working holiday as the clan head up to a spooky mansion, to meet with the owner that purportedly wishes to sell up.
Of course everything is not as it seems and the owner is actually the spirit of the hanged man from the introduction montage, who has been awaiting the return of his lost love so he may “move on,” and has decided that the mother is the reincarnation of her (as in traditional movie style, ‘they look exactly alike’), while he tries to awaken his loves memories of the forgotten past, the butler does his best to get rid of the father, while the children follow a ghost orb around the building uncovering the place’s tragic past, and their uncertain future. After some arbitrary trials in the form of simple fetch quests, the whole truth is uncovered, the children are captured and held hostage to blackmail their mother into marrying the Master of the house by the butler (I mean who did you expect to be the real villain?), after some cajoling (from yet another female authority figure) the father enacts a heroic rescue, unmasks the real villain, breaks the curse and saves the day. The master is reunited with his love, the helpful ghost orb, they leave the property to the family and ascend in a heavenly shaft of light.
Ok, so now think about the possibilities that open up when you remove the father figure, essentially the comedy foil, who puts the family into the dire situations they keep ending up in. He can still be the drive to the overarching plot, but with the comedy fall guy aspect removed the emotional heart of the film can blossom free from the choking vines of comedy slapstick and pride before a fall. His absence also gives scope for a more philosophical sub plot. The Ghost’s side of the story is pretty much fine as it is, there could be more time given over to following the past events that lead to their deaths, perhaps develop their relationship and let their problems (racial prejudices & inequality of their time) be reviled through their struggles rather than some hasty exposition during the ‘big reveal’ of the dénouement.
Ignoring the possible expansion of the ghost’s story ark for the moment, and just concentrating on the altered family dynamic; This is how I see it going:
The mother works hard to run the business alone and balance this with being a single parent, dropped hints that the father is no longer around, clues given that business used to be run by a husband and wife team (old adverts, ignorant people asking where their partner is etc.), the father’s picture made a feature of on the mantle. The daughter looks after her brother (the dynamic here pretty much remains the same, only there is a better indication that she does care about him even though she picks on him like a big sister does), the spider issue comes up she deals with it, but tells him he’ll have to learn to do it himself eventually (allusions to his father dealing with them, the son being “man of the house” now, and the possibility to work a character flaw into the daughter in the form of an abandonment issue). The call comes and indeed the offer is too good to pass up, the holiday turns into a business trip. They arrive at the Mansion meet the master, they get stranded there, in separate rooms the children follow the ghost orb (as in the original), the mother is summoned to speak with the master he shows her round, tells her of the mansion’s history and woos her (without the husband this now seems less creepy, and the mother can start to fall for him. There is scope [as long as it had been set up in the intro] for there to be an emotional need; her friends tell her to start dating, she makes excuses but still loves her husband, finally now someone has perhaps begun to catch her heart?). Meanwhile the butler works to foil the children’s progress in discovering what really happened years ago and ultimately capturing them (thus making him seem more like a legitimate baddie, in control of events rather than being moved along with them along with the rest, more deserving of the manic rant at the end and less like a feeble inconvenience.). Back with the master and the mother, when he reveals his true nature and intention he is up front about it rather than coyly nudging and hoping ‘her’ memories will suddenly come rushing back.
At this point I need to break from the narrative to discuss the options available here. Having established the mother’s position there are a number of motivations and questions that can be dealt with; She is genuinely taken with this amorous all be it spectral suitor and considers an eternity with someone they love an easy exchange for life, if she dies will she be reunited with her husband while breaking the curse and/or saving her children. The consideration for her children will weigh heavily on her decision and it allows a discussion about what is more important pining for a lost love (and effectively being dead, emotionally speaking), giving up a life and starting again with a new love (literally in this case), or dealing with the life you have and making it better.
There are also a couple of different ways this could branch out and end especially if you include the notion of re-incarnation as an actual possibility, is she really the reincarnation of his love (in this case the ghost orb would be the husband), will she meet the master and/or her husband’s re-incarnation at the end of the film, using the ever useful ‘plot-onium’ or ‘narrative-ium’ when the curse is lifted will the master gain a second chance at life (effectively being brought back to life), at the more grim end of the scale do they all choose to become ghosts?
To stick to the ‘short and sweet’ nature of the original I have chosen to finish it with the simplest option:
The ghost orb is his lost love, and with the children’s help and their mother’s strength they are able to confront the butler and reveal to the master his true nature, there is a struggle the butler is pulled to hell (as in the original), he grabs the mother and drags her with him, the Master and his love are unable to get to her in time, but another orb appears and shoots down after them, as the orb nears the falling pair it resolves itself into her husband who pulls her free and saves her. There is a moment where they embrace and he tells her he too will always love her but she has to live on for them both, and to love again (hints that she may be meeting someone soon), he embraces the children dolls out the standard fatherly advice (most of which they will have already surmised for themselves throughout their ordeal, but who doesn’t love a recap?), “Son It’s ok to be afraid sometimes, but you can’t let that stop you living your life.”, “Daughter I’m sorry I never said goodbye but you have to accept that sometimes in life you won’t be able to, but I’ll always love you/be with you”, They say their goodbyes, spirits ascend, the family becomes the owners of the property.
Some fluff showing the family getting on with their lives, the boy removing a spider himself, sister being nice to him etc.(Possibly over the credits) Some (nonspecific) time later as she is leaving work to spend time with the kids the mother will run into a charismatic stranger (possibility for a cheesy “have we met?” comment here), who looks suspiciously familiar to a certain Mansion dwelling ghost, he has just arrived in the area and is looking for a property, will ask about properties in the area, she will ask to see him tomorrow as she has to spend time with the family, he accepts this saying “family is important” he respects anyone who “knows the true value of family”, looking at him more closely she asks which property in particular he was interested in, he replies the mansion, (she suppresses a grin)locks up and makes to leave, “Till tomorrow then” he calls watching he leave with a smile, “we open at 7” she calls back, “Seven it is then.” He replies with the obvious implication that his interest is in more than just the house.
And that’s how the removal of one character can make a film much better, and stop me having to see Mr. Murphy smugly gurning and mugging his way through yet another film.