Haunted Mansion

Despite a great cast, this third attempt to bring the theme-park attraction to the screen can't summon up anything beyond a stretched and by-the-numbers affair.
Sarah Ward
August 31, 2023

Overview

There's almost nothing that's bold about Haunted Mansion, but making the Disney family-friendly horror-comedy about moving on from the past is downright audacious. What the film preaches, the company behind it isn't practising — with this specific movie or in general. This flick isn't the first that's based on the Mouse House's The Haunted Mansion theme-park attraction, thanks to a 2003 Eddie Murphy (You People)-starring feature. In 2021, the entertainment behemoth also combined the Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland highlight with The Muppets in streaming special Muppets Haunted Mansion. And, no matter how Haunted Mansion circa 2023 fares at the box office, there's no doubting that the idea will get another spin down the line. Nearly everything Disney does; this is the corporation that keeps remaking its animated hits as live-action pictures (see: The Little Mermaid), revelling in sequels even decades later (see: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny), and getting franchises sprawling as films and TV shows alike (see: Marvel and Star Wars).

Disney also adores stretching its well-known properties across as many parts of its business as possible, sometimes taking its movies and brands into its amusement parks — Star WarsMarvel and Pixar have all received that treatment — and, of course, repeatedly doing the reverse. Pirates of the CaribbeanJungle CruiseTomorrowland, Tower of Terror, Mission to Mars, The Country Bears: they've all charted the path that Haunted Mansion has three times now. Accordingly, while grappling with and learning how to move forward from grief isn't an amusing topic, that letting go sits at the latest Haunted Mansion's centre is the funniest thing about the new film. The first word in the picture's moniker couldn't be more spot on — not just due to the ghosts that terrorise the titular home, but via the unnerving reality that this is another by-the-numbers entry in a long line of attempts to hero existing name recognition first, foremost and forever.

When Dear White People and Bad Hair filmmaker Justin Simien begins his Haunted Mansion, it's with backstory that explains why astrophysicist Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield, Atlanta) is himself so unwilling to embrace the future. He meets Alyssa (Charity Jordan, They Cloned Tyrone), falls in love, then understandably falls apart when he's suddenly a widower — and, once he's consumed by mourning he's committed to staying that way. Then priest and exorcist Father Kent (Owen Wilson, Loki) ropes him into a gig at the movie's central abode, enlisting not just his help but the use of his specially developed camera that photographs dark matter and, ideally, spectres. The gadget was a labour of love for Alyssa, who worked as a ghost tour guide around New Orleans, a job that Ben has swapped science and the lab for after her passing.

There's a difference between truly believing in the supernatural and wanting to feel connected to the person you love, however; Ben is in the second category. So, when he gets snapping to help Gracey Manor's new inhabitant Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, Ahsoka), a doctor who has just relocated with her son Travis (Chase W Dillon, The Harder They Fall), he's as sceptical as he can be and just in it for the hefty payday. Then, two things eventuate: he connects with the shy and introverted boy, who is treated like an outcast at school; and, no matter how much he tries, he can't leave the home's spirits behind. Cue a notion straight from Disney's IRL playbook: being unable to cut ties. In Ben's case, the only solution is taking the haunted mansion's eeriness seriously, discovering what's going on, and calling in psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish, The Afterparty) and college historian Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) to also lend a hand.

Haunted Mansion's unspoken motto: if you're going to make a movie based on a theme-park favourite, you might as well make a theme park-style movie. So, something chaotic pops up around every corner, be it more nods to the feature's origins, more otherworldly bumps and jumps, more famous faces or more weak attempts at laughs. There's a bigger sense of experience to an amusement-park attraction, though, rather than just something happening, then something else, then another thing and so on as occurs here. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has one of the best-written — and best overall — sitcoms of the 21st century on her resume in Parks and Recreation, and also penned 2016's smart and funny female-led Ghostbusters, and yet her current script largely sticks to the rails. While there's emotional depth to Ben's journey, as well as to his bond with Travis, Haunted Mansion is rarely eager to veer there, preferring formulaic cursed-dwelling hijinks to sincerity everywhere it can.

Still, viewers should be grateful for the film's casting — especially Stanfield. The Judas and the Black Messiah Academy Award-nominee brings his roaming, restless Atlanta energy, melancholy and charm to Ben, aiding the film in conjuring up what little weight it has. It's through him, in fact, that it's possible to see the shadows of a better movie that Haunted Mansion sadly isn't. Around Stanfield, the bulk of his colleagues appear to be having enough fun with each other, including Dan Levy (Schitt's Creek) and 2023 Oscar-winner Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween Ends). That's another of Haunted Mansion's theme park-esque strategies: filling its frames with folks who look like they're enjoying themselves, even among an onslaught of stock-standard special effects that lengthen hallways, get people disappearing through walls and the like, in the hope that the vibe will be contagious. Alas, it sorely isn't.

It's easy to want to spend time with Stanfield and co: Wilson could've just skipped through time from 1999's The Haunting, but makes it work; Haddish amps up the mood whenever it's needed; and playing a figure that everyone is trying to flee perfectly suits Jared Leto (Morbius), who gets malicious as The Hatbox Ghost. A few spooks and scares hit the mark as well, but too few in an over-long-and-feels-it 123-minute movie. There's another presence lingering over Haunted Mansion, however: the ghost of genuinely excellent all-ages efforts, some with chills and others more with thrills, that are still beloved from years gone by. When this lacklustre effort is the newest entry in the field, no one is quickly moving past prior classics that still hold up wonderfully, such as Gremlins and The Goonies in the 80s; The Addams Family and Addams Family Values in the 90s; The Witches in that same decade; and the animated efforts of Coraline, ParaNorman and Frankenweenie.

Information

Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x