Debuting in 1969, The Haunted Mansion has hosted countless foolish mortals for decades, firmly cementing itself into pop culture history. The attraction has been seen as a gateway into the realm of horror for many, myself included. And while the property was adapted into a live-action film starring Eddie Murphy in 2003, the potential for a great film adaptation ala Pirates of the Caribbean, has been ripe. Even master filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was once attatched to give his take on the material over ten years ago. While that adaptation sadly never came to fruition, we finally have a new take on the spooky Disneyland attraction. And despite bursts of inspiration, this latest big-screen adaptation just never comes together in the way that it should.
LaKeith Stanfield is Ben, a cynical widower living in New Orleans. A former astrophysicist, Ben spent years developing a lens that can capture spectral sightings he calls the “ghost particle”. Ben is approached by Father Kent (Owen Wilson), who recruits him to investigate an old mansion recently purchased by single mom, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son, Travis that turns out to be haunted by 999 ghostly spirits. Together, they recruit psychic medium, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and eccentric professor, Bruce (Danny Devito) to attempt to rid the mansion of its many spirits, including the villainous Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto).
Helmed by Dear White People and Bad Hair director Justin Simien, there’s a clear passion on-screen in bringing the aesthetics of the attraction to life. From the nicely-rendered sets and immaculate production detail, filled with cleverly-assembled easter eggs, the look and feel of the ride is faithfully captured. The classic theme “Grim Grinning Ghosts” is also amusingly reworked into the score by Kris Bowers (King Richard). Simien even crafts some spooky moments here and there, accentuated by dutch angles and fluid camerawork. There is some nice practical make-up on the many ghosts of the mansion, whenever they’re not coated in CGI.
Narratively, Haunted Mansion is a bit of a mess, but you can see Simien’s heart is in the film. The script, credited to Kate Dippold (The Heat), features a handful of side-plots and diverging characters, and it only feels like it all comes together in the second half. Unfortunately by then, the bloated 122 minute runtime wears out its welcome. So much of the film’s structure feels studio mandated and test screened into oblivion. Simien’s film is ultimately a victim of the Disney studio meat grinder, with the insistence of computer-generated imagery for even the most basic of effect shots. The stakes and sense of danger aren’t felt as the digital artifice simply takes you out of the experience.
There’s not a scene that is remotely as effective as the Lucio Fulci-inspired mausoleum scene in the Eddie Murphy movie. That film, while no classic, put Murphy and his on-screen family in a fully-fledged gothic setting with lavish interior sets and a relatively tangible atmosphere. The 2023 update has frighteningly little atmosphere or tension to speak of. Even Jennifer Tilly’s Madame Leota from twenty years ago looks more believable than the rubbery-looking creation played by icon Jamie Lee Curtis. The overblown climax that is completely drowned out in artificial-looking CG set upon underpaid, overworked and non-unionized vfx artists, offers little in terms of thrills or chills.
The actors are all putting in fine work with Stanfield’s performance almost single-handedly wringing genuine emotion out of the film. The exchanges between Stanfield and Chase Dillon shows the potentially moving ghost story that’s buried beneath the busy plotting and bloated runtime. Tiffany Haddish is lively as the slightly subversive take on the psychic medium trope. Jared Leto is the Hatbox Ghost, but the character is an entirely digital creation with Leto’s efforts seemingly meaningless. Sporting a voice entirely reworked in post and no on-set presence evident, the only other creative decision more baffling regarding the film is opening it on the tailend of July. Bizarre cameos from Winona Ryder and Dan Levy suggest a major scene was severely cut or altered from the final product and awkwardly stands out from the rest of the film.
Haunted Mansion continues the dire state of live-action Disney films. It contains elements of an inspired take on the classic Disney attraction, and is backed by some terrific production design and a fully game cast. Unfortunately, director Justin Simien’s film lacks the soul of the classic attraction and settles on being a generic horror comedy for the family.
Haunted Mansion is now playing in theaters.