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'Haunted Mansion' Leaves a Familiar Taste of Unnecessary IP Fare

By Sara Clements | Film | August 1, 2023 |

By Sara Clements | Film | August 1, 2023 |


Twenty years after Rob Minkoff’s The Haunted Mansion, Disney is back with another take on the spooky attraction. Taking its audience on a ride that has similar beats to the Eddie Murphy-lead version, Haunted Mansion (minus “The”) sees the Mouse House once again on its grief shtick. Exploration of this theme in almost all of their films may seem tiresome for many, but it acts as the only affecting thing to come out of these remakes. Director Justin Simien and writer Katie Dippold bring quite a bit to the table, though, creating a take that feels more authentically New Orleans based and makes the titular mansion feel like a main character more than ever. However, while it’s entertaining enough with its wonderful cast of quirky characters, Haunted Mansion leaves a familiar taste of unnecessary IP fare.

Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) is grief-stricken over the loss of his wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). He’s turned to drink and continues to lead her ghost tours, despite being a skeptic. This is contradictory to his expertise in astrophysics where seeing the unseen is common. He even made a spectral capturing camera for his wife to help her see spirits, but now that she’s gone, her ghost being out there is too much for him to bear. Despite the vibrancy and carnival spirit of New Orleans, it’s still the most haunted city in America, and its sinister side is hard to ignore. Newcomers to the area, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), face the latter almost instantaneously when they move into a mansion near the bayou. It may be dark and cold, with cobwebs galore, but there’s a lot of charm in its old-world gothic design - until the spirits come out to play.

When they do, an opportunity for Ben comes in the form of a priest (Owen Wilson) with a wad of cash. The priest convinces Ben to investigate the mansion, but as Gabbie warns, once he comes in there’s no going back. A joke he suspects is actually truth: the living and the dead become locked together behind the mansion’s doors. Ben isn’t alone, joining him is the aforementioned priest, Father Kent, a medium named Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), Bruce (Danny DeVito), a professor and paranormal author, and the all-knowing Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis). Together, they must figure out who the ghosts are and how to help them before they are trapped in purgatory, too.

There’s much to enjoy about the titular mansion. It feels like a real funhouse carnival attraction, thanks to the breadth of its endless hallways. You can genuinely feel that secrets and ghouls must lurk around every corner. There are moments where the mansion acts like the real-life ride, taking the characters on tour like they’re moving on an invisible track. Storybook animation illustrating the mansion’s history is a great addition, along with the Hatbox Ghost (voiced by Jared Leto). However, while the figure is quite menacing, there is something more appealing about the human quality that dominates the creation of the ghosts that appear in the 2003 film.

Additionally, the film’s dialogue and comedy are pretty hit or miss and feel forced, until the naturally funny people show up. Together, they’re a fun troop (despite the questionable, kooky way they’re made to run on screen, especially Stanfield). Being trapped together, they form an odd family unit and bounce off each other perfectly as performers. Ben, as he gets to know his new bedfellows, learns that he isn’t the only one drowning in grief. Other characters have lost someone, effectively hitting the right notes that make Disney’s exploration of this theme affecting and sweet time and time again.

Dillon is the MVP, acting as the voice of reason for much of the film, and demonstrates that grief is a sign of strength, but like Ben, that it’s also OK to be vulnerable in the process of moving on. Curtis, Haddish, Wilson, DeVito, and Dawson all deliver in spades, especially Haddish who can make any line a gut-buster. And Lakeith, well, we hear a lot about “scream queens” when referring to horror films, but he makes a fantastic addition to the list of “scream kings”.

Adults can find enjoyment in Haunted Mansion, but it’s definitely a film geared toward kids — and that’s not a bad thing. The film explains the afterlife in a digestible way for them and becomes a gateway introduction to the horror genre for a new generation, as the 2003 film was for mine. It’s easy to celebrate that as a horror fan, but at the end of the day, these remakes just feel like one cash grab after another. Haunted Mansion is no different.

This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, ‘Haunted Mansion’ wouldn’t exist.