“The Haunted Mansion” has been a staple attraction at Disney parks nearly since their inception. The dark ride made its debut in 1969 at Walt Disney World. Daring riders to board one of its “Doom Buggies”, The Haunted Mansion takes guests through a Southern Gothic abode, brimming with many manor of quirky haunts. Ingenious tech like a waiting room with stretching walls, hitch-hiking ghosts that appear in the mirror right next to the rider, and the illusion of ghosts dancing in an austere ballroom have allowed the attraction to stand the test of time. In a relatively tough summer for Disney (Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania and Indiana Jones & the Dial of Destiny both underperforming), the Mouse looks to adapt the classic ride in Haunted Mansion, directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair).
This is actually Disney’s second attempt to make a film based off The Haunted Mansion. 2003’s The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy, certainly has its fans, but at the time it was yet another flop in Disney’s ongoing push to have their rides turned into films, resulting in a The Country Bears or Tomorrowland for every Jungle Cruise or Pirates of the Caribbean. For as well remembered by those who grew up with it for Murphy‘s mugging or that truly gnarly crypt sequence, The Haunted Mansion became nothing more than a stepping stone when legendary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro announced he would make his own, much darker adaptation of the dark ride. Alas, that version of the film got stuck in development hell.
Now, the version of Haunted Mansion that hits theaters this week, is a much different beast entirely. Anchored by an all-star cast featuring the likes of Rosario Dawson, Danny DeVito, Tiffany Hadish, and Jared Leto, from a script by Katie Dippold (2016’s Ghostbusters, Snatched), Haunted Mansion is only slightly less family-friendly than its 2003 predecessor. That doesn’t come to the detriment of the experience, as Justin Simien‘s Haunted Mansion retains the ride’s spooky atmosphere for a fun jaunt through the supernatural world that is likely to make a horror fan out of impressionable young viewers.
Katie Dippold weaves an enticing, if messy, web
The screenplay from Katie Dippold is rather proficient at bringing a cast of colorful characters together in an appropriately eerie yarn. Ben (Lakeith Stanfield) has hit rock bottom. A former astrophysicist with an interest in spectral photography, Ben has now resigned himself to working as a New Orleans tour guide. When the eccentric Father Kent (Owen Wilson) shows up at his doorstep pleading for his help clearing a decrepit manor owned by a single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) of the spirits inside, Ben sees an opportunity to make a quick buck. Alas, as soon as he steps inside, he learns that the titular Haunted Mansion is home to 999 Happy Haunts, and the treacherous spirit Hatbox Ghost only needs one more soul to enact his nefarious plans.
By enlisting the help of a professor (Danny DeVito), an amateur psychic (Tiffany Haddish), and a psychic trapped in a crystal ball (Jamie Lee Curtis), Ben might just be able to save himself, Gabbie, and her young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon). Katie Dippold is well known for her comedies such as The Heat, where jokes fly by every few seconds. Haunted Mansion is very much in the same style of horror-comedy sandbox. This approach has its pros and cons. The many, many swings to get a laugh out of the audience can often result in a whole lotta misses, yet the madcap tone ensures that there’s always something interesting happening. Although obviously not as gruesome (or as good) as these movies, seeing the various degree of ghosts mess with our central group gives off the feeling of “Baby’s First Evil Dead“. All high energy, all the time.
At times, this makes the movie seems like a bunch of vignettes weaved together, much like the ride itself, but it’s got enough of a core to hold things together. Dippold’s development of the central mystery worked a lot for me. The Hatbox Ghost is a truly macabre figure on paper, whose nefarious intentions course through the house. When the movie pauses for an exposition scene, it’s a welcome bit of history for the movie’s world rather than a chore. Moreover, Haunted Mansion is both delicate and honest in its handling of death. It doesn’t shy away from the macabre in the history of the mansion (it certainly earns that PG-13) rating.
Haunted Mansion makes a smart choice by making the topic of passing on essential to its plot. In particular, Ben’s arc touches on learning to let go of those who have passed, honoring them by continuing to remember. Grief is kind of an overdone concept in movies about hauntings, but it feels genuine here. All in all, Haunted Mansion‘s script is a rickety Doom Buggy, but it takes you through the ride just fine.
A manor of game performances
There’s no question that a majority of the heavy lifting in Haunted Mansion is being done by the performers. It’d be generous to say that Rosario Dawson is anything more than serviceable in the film, but she and Chase W. Dillon are sympathetic enough to make the audience care for the around 2-hour runtime. Danny DeVito and Tiffany Hadish hold it down with their trademark comedic personas. By now, they can entertain a crowd with their antics, and the slapstick and banter with these two remind the audience that it’s okay to have. Jamie Lee Curtis was made to play her role. And Owen Wilson? Well, the man’s a natural treasure, his laidback, sarcastic priest a very welcome presence indeed. He’s a great foil for Ben, who is an uncommonly good protagonist for one of these movies.
Lakeith Stanfield throws himself into this role. In less steady hands, Ben could come across as selfish, or narcissistic. Instead, Stanfield incorporates an air of nihilism to his character; a man who has given up on himself because he believes the world is ready to beat him down anyways. Seeing him slowly soften up and begin to use his know-how for the good of his newfound friend isn’t an original arc. Stanfield makes it feel fresh because in his eyes you can see the hurt he harbors slowly morph into resolve. Truly, he classes up the joint.
On the other side of the spectrum is Jared Leto‘s vocal (and perhaps motion capture) turn as the Hatbox Ghost. This is your traditional, run-of-the-mill specter, looking, acting, and sounding like the consummate idea of a scary ghost. He relishes the opportunity to play such an over-the-top evil character with the mischievous grin of a child who gets to be in the school’s haunted house. It works- offering a family-friendly (ish) personification of evil for Ben to vanquish. So long as he didn’t bug anyone on-set by staying in character, this is a Leto performance I’m just fine with.
The happy haunts of the Haunted Mansion
The main attraction of Haunted Mansion is, of course, the mansion itself. Justin Simien does a darn tootin’ job bringing the house to life, giving it an ever-shifting geography that once again reminded me of another adult horror film: The Shining. Cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron uses an omniscient camera that roves throughout the house, giving us a constant tour that zeroes in on the macabre character designs. Some favorites include an axe-wielding widow with a penchant for beheadings, a stumbling mummy, and the Hatbox Ghost himself.
The visual effects aren’t groundbreaking, but they are expressive and colorful, lighting up the dim, dusty hallways like creatures crossing over from another plane of existence should. It feels very true to the theme park ride on which its based. Such is true of the work of editor Phillip J. Bartell, who keeps a snappy pace to ensure that audiences are seeing some fresh near constantly. Simien has always been a director who works in a very stylized mode, and Haunted Mansion shows he can bring that same sensibility to a big tentpole movie.
It’s a crying shame that Haunted Mansion releases in July because this is tailor-made for the Halloween season. Lakeith Stanfield shines in a star-studded cast that works off a busy, but endearing screenplay that paves the way for Justin Simien to have some fun with the audience. Much like the ride before it, Haunted Mansion straps the audience in and takes them on a spooky, though not overwhelmingly terrifying, journey into the world of the dead that will undoubtedly make horror fans out of the kiddos who enter its gates.
My rating for this film:
Disney’s Haunted Mansion is now in theaters! Are you going to see it opening weekend or is it all too scary? Let us know on social media or the Cosmic Circus Discord!