VERDICT: Actor Lakeith Stanfield brings the human heart to Justin Simien’s mediocre corporate horror comedy ‘Haunted Mansion’.
By William Bibbiani, July 25, 2023
The Walt Disney Corporation has been transforming amusement park rides into mediocre movies ever since D.J. MacHale’s mostly-forgotten Tower of Terror back in 1997. That trend continues with Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion. This supernatural comedy is occasionally amusing, occasionally heartfelt, and occasionally spooky, but mostly it’s a generic experience, designed to appeal to families without actually affecting them very much.
It’s tempting to feel sorry for director Simien (Bad Hair) and screenwriter Katie Dippold (Ghostbusters), who are tasked with telling a scary story that’s never allowed to be scary, lest the film frighten kids away from the beloved Disneyland attraction cited in the title, one that’s been packing them in since 1969. The filmmakers are trying to turn the ride’s well-known iconography and well-documented mythology into a movie that could startle the kids and amuse the adults, but only the impressive production design, a handful of creepy set pieces, and Lakeith Stanfield’s genuinely tortured performance suggest how good this film might have been.
Stanfield plays Ben, who used to be a scientist, but after the death of his beloved wife Alyssa (Charity Jordan, They Cloned Tyrone) he’s an emotional wreck, obsessed only with finding proof of the supernatural. Or at least he was. After years of searching with his specially-designed camera he’s given up hope, and now makes a living giving ghost tours of New Orleans to annoyingly chipper visitors, yelling things at them like “Ghosts don’t exist! Life is dirt! We’re all dirt!”
Ben’s life turns around when Father Ken (Owen Wilson) invites him to a haunted mansion, which the new owners — single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her perpetually-overdressed young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon, The Underground Railroad) — believe is haunted. Tempted by the promise of $2,000, he gives the house a half-hearted look-see, tells Gabbie it’s all in her head and proceeds to go home and get haunted himself by one of the mansion’s many hitchhiking ghosts.
It turns out that, just like the ghosts in the amusement park ride, everyone who enters the haunted mansion leaves with a ghost that haunts them until they return. On the surface it’s a clever way to solve the age-old conundrum of the haunted house genre — specifically, “Why don’t they just leave the house?” — using the mechanics of the ride the film is based on (and the mechanics of the Japanese horror film franchise Ju-On, if you want to get all “film critic” about it).
But the plot device doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, since it turns out the mystery of the house involves an ominous “Hat Box Ghost” (Jared Leto) who’s tormenting the other 998 apparitions in the building. That means these ghosts don’t like it there anymore. So why would they want to return? It’s like breaking out of prison just so you can force one of the security guards to bring you back.
Anyway, before long Gabbie, Travis, Ken, and Ben are joined by a historian with a bad heart (Danny DeVito) and a medium with something to prove (Tiffany Haddish). Together they have to learn the mansion’s many secrets, seek out the crystal ball of the deceased psychic Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), and stop the Hat Box Ghost from collecting the 1,000th soul and becoming so powerful he can leave the house. (Why he doesn’t just hitchhike, like all the other ghosts, is never explained.)
The ensemble cast knows how to tell a joke when the opportunity arises. DeVito’s shriek of “I’m too old to die!” deserves a chuckle, and Wilson is more at home here than he ever was in Jan de Bont’s ill-conceived 1999 rehash of The Haunting. Stanfield is the standout, giving the film’s most impassioned monologues and bringing genuine, almost unnerving pain to a corporate product that doesn’t know what to do with that much sincerity.
But not every actor fares so well. Rosario Dawson has bizarrely little to do, ceding most of the film’s parental moments to Stanfield, most of the plot to everyone else, and settling for weird gags in which ghosts try to prevent her from cooking eggs for everybody. And then of course there’s Leto, who may as well not have been in this movie at all. We never see his face or hear his voice without the vocal distortion that makes him sound like Paul Frees, the narrator of the Haunted Mansion ride, and nothing about his mostly-CG performance stands out as anything another actor couldn’t have done.
I’ll say this much: Simien’s Haunted Mansion owes the original Eddie Murphy film a debt of gratitude because it looks a heck of a lot better than Rob Minkoff’s hyperactive, childish disaster. This new Haunted Mansion feels like a real movie (even if it’s rarely a good one) instead of a chaotic cavalcade of bad jokes and whatever the cinematographic equivalent of “shrill” is. (If nothing else, we can say this is the best-haunted house remake Owen Wilson has ever been in.)
Just when you think maybe this Haunted Mansion isn’t so bad, and you want to give the filmmakers credit for turning a weird rehash of plot points from Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters (again, also written by Dippold) — and for some reason Steve Beck’s remake of Th13teen Ghosts (senior concept designer Sam Hargreaves worked on both) — into something semi-respectable and engaging, the movie reminds you that it’s still a shameless corporate commercial. There’s a scene where someone claims tater tots from Burger King are proof that your dead loved ones still care about you. Tater tots.
This is even though Burger King doesn’t sell tater tots. And if you’re thinking about the fast food chain’s very tater tot-esque hash browns, they stop serving those in the morning so it makes no sense that these characters would be able to order them at sunset. (If you’re going to do hack product placement, at least do it right.)
Anyway, there are worse films than Haunted Mansion. At least one of them is also called Haunted Mansion. But there are much better films as well, and some of them even know how Burger King works.