"Haunted Mansion" stars Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Jared Leto, Danny DeVito, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Released on July 28, 2023, the film is about a mother and her son discovering their new home is full of ghosts.
The film was directed by Justin Simien, who also directed "Dear White People" and "Bad Hair". It is based on the theme park attraction by Walt Disney. When planning to move into a new house, you must ensure it's in complete condition. That includes checking the cleanliness, the amount of space, and even the structure. However, it's also essential to check whether the new home is full of spooky spirits. Unfortunately for the unlucky souls who dare to enter the house, that part happens to remain unchecked. Last weekend, Disney returned to one of its famous attractions that made its theme parks household names with a film adaptation tasked to deliver summer frights to its audiences. I'm talking about the "Haunted Mansion", a haunted house attraction utilizing different types of technology to bring its ghostly atmosphere to life. Given its creepy yet family-friendly concept, it would've been perfect if it was released in October to coincide with Halloween, but what can you do?
This isn't the first time Disney has adapted The Haunted Mansion. Its first attempt occurred twenty years ago with Rob Minkoff's "The Haunted Mansion" starring Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Wallace Shawn, and Jennifer Tilly. Despite being a critical misfire, that film was a mild financial success and became one of the dark comedy movies to achieve popularity through seasonal cable programming. The attraction was later revisited in 2021 as a Disney+ Halloween special starring the Muppets titled "Muppets Haunted Mansion". This brings us back to its reboot, which features an impressive cast and the director behind the critically-acclaimed "Dear White People" and a horror movie about murderous hair. Were they enough to deliver a terrifying experience that's as fun as the attraction, or was it another reason for us to check out of the mansion early? Let's find out.
The story centers on Gabbie (Dawson), a single mother. She and her son, Travis (Dillon), moved into a mansion to turn it into a bed and breakfast. As they settle into their new location, Gabbie and Travis slowly discover strange events surrounding the mansion. They eventually find that their new house is haunted by vicious spirits, including the Hatbox Ghost (Leto). As a result, Gabbie and Travis recruit several professionals to help them remove the unwanted ghostly visitors. That includes former paranormal investigator turned tour guide Ben Matthias (Stanfield), psychic Harriet (Haddish), Father Kent (Wilson), and college history professor Bruce Davis (DeVito).
I've never experienced the Haunted Mansion attraction because I have yet to visit Disneyland, Walt Disney World, or any other Disney-related park. Don't worry. My time will come eventually. The only thing that got me into the attraction was the 2003 film with Eddie Murphy. I didn't see it in theaters because I didn't think my nine-year-old self would handle it. However, I eventually saw it on television and remembered enjoying it, mainly because I was in a phase where anything with Murphy in it was automatically good in my eyes. That alone is enough for me to check out the latest version of this ghostly experience, along with its all-star cast. I mean, how could you say no to a lineup like this? Although, the better question should be whether this lineup can carry a movie like this. The answer to that question is a yes, but that doesn't make this experience a terrifying summer horror treat.
This latest version of "Haunted Mansion" has a similar plot to the 2003 movie, in which a family moves into a mansion and is haunted by ghosts. The only difference is that the new iteration carries a PG-13 rating instead of a PG rating. Based on the rating, one would easily assume that "Haunted Mansion" would be a bit darker than the Eddie Murphy version regarding the horror aspect. Boy, how wrong they are. By Disney's standards, the film carries the same tone as the 2003 version in which it combines the studio-branded family-friendly comedy with supernatural horror. This tone can be tricky to execute because they don't want to make it too scary for the kids or make it too juvenile for parents and adults. "Haunted Mansion" periodically proves this theory through its direction and screenplay.
The film is my first exposure to Justin Simien's direction since I regrettably didn't watch "Dear White People", which I heard was fantastic. Based on what I've seen from him, Simien didn't do too badly with the tone, but there were some restraints working against him that kept him from truly shining. While the scares were understandably subtle for younger viewers, they barely scratched the surface with its disturbing content and grimy settings. In short, it's not that terrifying. Again, I get that it's a movie for families, but I've seen way scarier stuff from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or even a random dark-ride attraction at an amusement park. As for the comedy, it's the only thing that's been hit-and-miss for me. The only scene that actually made me laugh was the sketch artist (played by Hasan Minhaj) drawing a perfect replica of the Hatbox Ghost. Everything else, however, is a middling comedy showcase that fell flat with its dialogue and execution. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has written some pretty funny jokes in her filmography, mainly the films by Paul Feig, but her work in "Haunted Mansion" didn't do much for me regarding the stale humor.
However, I found a few bright spots in those two elements that make this visit worthwhile. Regarding the direction, Justin Simien did a decent job reflecting the creepy mansion in movie format. Part of that is due to the set designs representing the old-fashioned mansion. They paid homage to the elements from the attraction while also capturing the eeriness of traversing the mansion at night. The lighting and atmosphere also helped recapture the creep factor in the house, even though they're played for laughs. As for the script, it periodically compensates for its lack of comedy with an endearing yet middling narrative involving grief and loss. While the movie focuses on Gabbie and Travis in a haunted mansion, it's actually about Ben struggling with the death of his wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). Considering it's a movie about ghosts, it's no surprise that the plot went down this route amid its "frightening" scenarios. It was also probably a good choice on the studio's part since I found Ben's situation more interesting than Gabbie and Travis, who are more like supporting characters. Despite the rough patches in this sentimental narrative, including the predictable twists, the film carries enough heart amid its haunting to make this haunted house habitable.
Another element that makes this movie watchable is the cast. As I said earlier, it's got an impressive lineup of talented actors uniting to cleanse the house from its wickedness, and they're sufficient enough to make their quest mildly entertaining. LaKeith Stanfield has done some solid work over the years, impressing me nonstop with his talent. His performance as Ben is no different, as he offered an emotional core needed to emphasize the film's messages amid its flawed tone. Owen Wilson and Tiffany Haddish were also decent in their roles as Father Kent and Harriet, respectively. Rosario Dawson and Chase W. Dillon also provided likable presences as Gabbie and Travis, even though the latter was periodically wishy-washy. Finally, we have Jared Leto as the Hatbox Ghost. I know it's fun to ridicule or even despise Leto, especially with what happened with "Morbius", but bear with me when I say that he actually did all right as the movie's antagonist. He was tasked to deliver a creepy and unsettling voice to the ghost, and he pulled it off well. However, the only issue I had with the Hatbox Ghost's design is that he would've looked better with makeup and practical effects instead of CGI.
Except for the Hatbox Ghost, the visuals in "Haunted Mansion" were okay, if not decent. With the addition of the set designs, the visual effects provided a mildly fun experience of characters encountering the supernatural. Of course, that includes its variety of spirits and the topsy-turvy vibes from the mansion and the spirit realm. It won't break new ground regarding the effects because we have plenty of other big-budget blockbusters that suffer the same fate. However, for a movie that costs $150 million, its effort was acceptable in providing subtly disturbing imagery onscreen.
Overall, "Haunted Mansion" delivers the usual grim grinning ghosts we'd expect from the theme park attraction but offers little in its story and tone to make the experience terrifyingly fun. Regarding the film adaptations of Disney's theme park attractions, "Haunted Mansion" is another addition that's as mildly entertaining as the ride it's based on. Unfortunately, it's also another adaptation that struggles to recapture the same spark from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, mainly its first installment. The cast, especially Stanfield, was a delight to watch, and the set designs and visuals reflected the "Haunted Mansion" attraction with suitable results. However, its average narrative and uneven tone are some of the reasons people shouldn't stay in this house for more than one night. It's a watchable adaptation if you enjoy the Haunted Mansion from the movies or the attraction. Otherwise, this is one ghostly roommate you don't want to live with.