3.5 out of 5 stars

Based on a theme park ride, Haunted Mansion is one of Disney’s few live-action films to not bastardise one of their animated classics. It also has a lively sense of humour and energy to its storytelling, harkening back to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), which was also famously based on one of their attractions. As was the recent Jungle Cruise (2021), so there have now been enough such movies to warrant a new sub-genre.

Of that quirky sub-genre, if the first Pirates remains the high-water mark, Haunted Mansion comes second, and Cruise trails in third. The first adaptation of the ride, The Haunted Mansion (2003), meanwhile, easily ranks a distant fourth given how it’s one of those middling family-friendly films Eddie Murphy made as his star was fading. It’s not outlandish to say this new version is better than what came before.

The plot finds New Orleans-based astrophysicist Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) grieving the loss of his partner when Father Kent (Owen Wilson) requests his expertise in spectral photography at a mansion inhabited by Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon). On crossing the threshold, however, Matthias finds himself tied to the house by mischievous ghosts and determines to break the spell with the help of his new friends, also including a professor (Danny DeVito) and a medium (Tiffany Haddish).

The ensemble’s performances are a lot of fun, allowing audiences to play ‘spot the celebrity’ at various points while also just enjoying the lead characters. Wilson brings his usual stoner-y, eyes-half-closed, ‘surfer dude’ attitude to his role as the priest, looking like the nicer brother of Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) creep Reverend Henry Kane.

Stanfield is competent as the protagonist although he’s not given much original dramatic meat to chew on. Films like Haunted Mansion are often a pay cheque role for handsome Hollywood A-listers. I do wish Disney had done something more unique with his character.  And I place the onus on Disney more than screenwriter Katie Dippold because Matthias is such a cookie-cutter masculine hero for one of these family films, to the point where his establishing dialogue and background probably appear in Final Draft tool options. (One imagines Dippold brainstorming with index cards provided by the House of Mouse, silhouetted Mickey faces in their upper-left corners like American Psycho business cards. “CHARACTER MUST HAVE TRAGIC PAST.” Etc.)

That said, Dippold is a hack-for-hire in many ways, her stock-in-trade being inoffensive comedies that provide shallow but presumably well-meaning gender/racial twists on Hollywood tropes that had become cliches by the 1990s. Haunted Mansion is her best film, but with an oeuvre that includes the Ghostbusters (2016) reboot and Amy Schumer vehicle Snatched (2017), that’s not saying much. Here she’s teamed up with Justin Simien, the writer-director of satires Dear White People (2014) and Bad Hair (2020), both of which tackled US racial issues and were generally well-received by critics.

Simien seems to have restrained Dippold’s worst writing impulses. Thus, we don’t get extended bits of comic business that bore you to tears and feel more suited to a bland network sitcom, ditto the Judd Apatow-esque “TV staging” (i.e. dull, functional, unimaginative mise-en-scène), replaced instead with more cinema-quality filmmaking courtesy of Simien’s sure hand. Dippold still writes some comedy clangers, but her usual sentimentality’s also gone, perhaps because Disney provided enough to go around.

The pairing of Simien and Dippold feels like a strategic choice by Disney, but one which works in its favour as to the product’s actual quality since Simien at least has an artistic vision and professional competence. The strategy comes in when a film is being marketed. When the female-led Ghostbusters was being flogged to punters the studio latched onto a minority of misogynistic comments by maladjusted types to reframe the narrative less as “fans not excited for the reboot of iconic childhood property” and more as “embattled Girl Power project faces off against incels”. This was dishonest and didn’t reflect the fact that the film was simply bad in many ways, including being quite hateful towards fans of the original film, depicting them as babyish male virgins.

Haunted Mansion doesn’t have such a chip on its shoulder and avoids politicising itself, instead using its Black-led cast to tell the story in a style that feels authentic to its genre and intent. So while I don’t credit Disney with choosing its creative team and continuing the Black-led theme from the Eddie Murphy film for altruistic reasons—like how they include marginal queer characters and then excise them for the Chinese release, it’s more about market strategy than social conscience—it works for this new Haunted Mansion.

Simien has fun playing with Black archetypes like Dillon’s nerdy Travis, clearly modelled on Urkel from the sitcom Family Matters (1989-1998). He gets a good performance from the little boy as well. Dawson is great as the mother figure, projecting grace and warmth and intelligence in her maternal role. DeVito’s little more than comic relief, but brings such high energy to every role he plays you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s around more than he is. Haddish rounds out the ensemble cast in a role much like Owen’s. She’s charismatic and delivers a punchline well enough.

And yet, surprisingly, this film has received middling to bad reviews, with Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate score and summation claiming it’s neither funny nor scary enough. As for “scary”, it’s a family film, you’re not going to get A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) with blood pouring out of sconces and a cute child protagonist dragged to Hell. I don’t know why any grown-up critic would expect scares from a Disney flick. That’s like going to a romance expecting to see action, or a DC film expecting to be entertained. And if The Haunted Mansion was genuinely scary the same critics would be calling it inappropriate for children, its target audience.

With regards to “funny”, it’s not exactly a knee-slapper but I found it jolly enough. It’s a Halloween-themed adventure film in the vein of Hocus Pocus (1993) or Caspar (1995), both of which also received middling to poor reviews before becoming cult favourites. I have a suspicion Haunted Mansion will do better at home come Halloween, what with parents looking for creepy films to watch with their kids, which may be why Disney decided to release it into cinemas months before the spooky season.

The VFX are fun and often used to shrink and enlarge parts of the mansion, including a reference to MC Escher. The plot also takes cues from Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, in its depiction of a group of people trapped at a haunted mansion overseen by a villainous patriarchal spirit.

The film is old-fashioned in ways both good and bad. Its boilerplate structure and formulas, pertaining to both its lead and child characters, are a little overfamiliar. Matthias was an astrophysicist at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) but now he’s leading ghost tours around New Orleans because he lost his partner for the most generic reason possible in one of these films, while Travis is a nerdy kid who can’t understand why kids don’t find his classroom diligence and bow ties cool.

However, these generic elements are outweighed by the charmingly old-fashioned adventure stuff, which includes messages drawn on bathroom mirrors and read via steam from the taps, ghostly sea captains, and Scooby-Doo-style corridor chases. The celebrity supporting roles are also fun. Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) shows up as a head in a crystal ball and Jared Leto (Morbius) gives his first acceptable performance for years as the evil spectral patriarch. (Although I suspect his voice was digitally tinkered with. He’s unrecognisable anyway, so it would have been worth just hiring a great voice actor.)

All in all, Haunted Mansion is a fun Gothic adventure film with colourful VFX, good performances, and a fun spooky vibe. Great summer/Halloween entertainment.

USA | 2023 | 123 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Justin Simien.
writer: Katie Dippold (based on the theme park ride by Walt Disney).
starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Dan Levy, Jamie Lee Curtis & Jared Leto.