Disney’s latest summer spooktacular Haunted Mansion takes inspiration from their decades-old theme park ride. And what’s wild is that when this film drops in theatres this week, Haunted Mansion will have as many film adaptations as The Fantastic Four.
That’s the world we’re living in, folks.
Nowadays, any brand people recognize is ripe for the silver screen treatment. Don’t get me wrong; recycling old ideas to create new film franchises isn’t inherently awful. If the filmmaker adapting the property has something meaningful to say or a fresh take, then I’m all for it.
I have soft spots for Clue, The Lego Movie, and even The Pirates of the Caribbean series (also based on a theme park ride). These titles represent the best-case scenario for updating beloved content people are nostalgic for.
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The problem, however, is when movie studios mine ideas from beloved toy lines, comic book characters, and TV series without grasping the essence of what made fans fall in love with them.
Sadly, most of today’s adaptations are cold-blooded corporate cash grabs rather than heartfelt recreations.
However, one aspect of Disney’s latest Haunted Mansion reboot gives me reason for hope; the hiring of director Justin Simien. Simien is a gifted young filmmaker with a penchant for directing acerbic social commentaries with bold characters and clever dialogue.
With a splendid cast and a filmmaker like Simien at the helm, this movie has the goods to launch a successful Haunted Mansion series.
Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) is the world’s most jaded haunted house-tour guide. The skeptical astrophysicist inherited the job from his wife after her tragic death. Ben doesn’t believe in spirits or the afterlife. He only takes on the role to carry on his wife’s legacy. Now he spends his days berating anyone eager enough to ask if they’ll see ghosts on Ben’s ghost tour.
Kent (Owen Wilson), a local preacher, recruits Ben to help out desperate single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son Travis (Chase Dillon). Gabbie and Travis unwittingly moved into a haunted mansion, and the restless spirits inside their home won’t let them be.
Simply getting out of the house won’t solve the problem since the entities follow Gabbie and Travis wherever they go. Their only chance at a normal life is to put the spirits to rest by solving the mystery of the haunted mansion.
Haunted Mansion mostly nails the vibe I’m looking for from a PG-13 haunted house movie. The film is spooky and atmospheric, with an eerie score. Darren Gilford’s creaky and decrepit production design brings the set to life in vivid detail.
The film relies on A LOT of computer effects, so the production design plays a crucial role anchoring the film in the real world. Despite its overwhelming reliance on CGI spectacle, Haunted Mansion is at its best when it goes lo-fi, letting its splendid cast hang out and wisecrack in dimly lit rooms.
Haunted Mansion’s New Orleans setting is the perfect location for a haunting movie. But despite some lip service to America’s most haunted city early on, this story could have taken place anywhere. It’s unfortunate the film didn’t better integrate New Orleans’ culture and folklore into the story’s ghoulish mythology.
I understand that Haunted Mansion isn’t trying to be The Conjuring, but it lacks scares. It looks spooky, but it’s never scary.
Look, I’m not asking for this PG-13 flick to deliver two hours of nightmare fuel. But the movies I grew up with weren’t afraid to throw some legit frights into family films. (Here’s looking at you, Large Marge). I’ve seen creepier Goosebumps episodes.
The problem here is that Haunted Mansion never bothers slowing down long enough to build any tension – and tension is essential to instilling dread. Its overreliance on CGI-heavy action sequences becomes tiresome. The film features too many scenes where frightened characters frantically dash from room to room like they’re in an episode of Scooby Doo.
Haunted Mansion boasts a charming cast, but the humdrum script provides them few chances to shine. Tiffany Haddish, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Danny DeVito are welcome additions to any cast, but the screenplay prevents them from flexing their comedic muscles. The cast sneaks in a handful of genuine laughs, but the joke-writing misses the mark more times than not.
LaKeith Stanfield is tasked with doing the film’s emotional heavy lifting, and he once again proves why he’s one of the most talented young actors working today. He infuses Ben with an emotional complexity that would feel hacky in a lesser actor’s hands. The problem is that Stanfield’s big emotional swings feel out of step with the campy ghost-hunting film happening around him.
Simien never gets a firm handle on his film’s tone. All the slapstick comedy, jump scares, and earnest emotional beats aren’t tuned to the same wavelength.
Despite its flaws, I appreciate Haunted Mansion’s perspective on loss and grieving. At its core, this is a movie about the ever-looming spectre of death and how its presence shapes the course of our lives.
Fear of death can be stifling and often prevents us from living life to the fullest. But making peace with our mortality teaches us to savour life’s wonders. Ben represents all the people jaded by what they’ve lost. And his animosity towards his wife’s death gets in the way of appreciating the many ways their relationship enriched his soul.
It’s only natural to yearn for a lost love. But an enlightened person fills the void in their heart by celebrating that their love ever existed.
Haunted Mansion is a frantic, and disjointed horror-comedy lacking scares and clever jokes. There are times when the cast, visuals, and score come together to show flashes of the awesome movie this film could have been. But those moments are fleeting. Fortunately, the cast is too charming and talented to let the material fall flat.
Haunted Mansion isn’t a slog, but it’s rarely exciting. Its biggest sin is its failure to stand out from other horror comedies in any meaningful way. This film is destined to haunt the dark corners of streaming servers where average films go to die.