‘Haunted Mansion’ Struggles to Find Scares and Humor – Review
Disney’s latest attempt at a Haunted Mansion movie is more confusing than it is spooky. The titular Disneyland attraction that first opened its doors in 1969 is one of the most beloved from the Happiest Place on Earth. Via doom buggies, guests are taken across the halls, hidden rooms, and graveyards of a massive haunted mansion that resides somewhere deep in the heart of New Orleans. Yes, there are tons of iconic ghosts and ghouls that call the mansion home, like the Hatbox Ghost, Madame Leota, and the Bride. But for the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward theme park attraction that leaves plenty of room for interpretation in a cinematic adaptation. Even with this being the case, Disney’s Haunted Mansion (2023) gets lost in its own machinations, resulting in an odd mix of horror and humor that fails to win over its core crowd: fans of the ride itself.
Directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair) and written by Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation, 2016’s Ghostbusters), Haunted Mansion is clearly a passion project for the two. 2003’s The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy, was somewhat rejected by fans for not utilizing enough of the ride’s familiar characters or lore. Murphy certainly stumbles through recognizable parts of the ride in his film, but it takes a lot of creative liberties in its script. This latest adaptation seeks to rectify that by including as many ghosts and scenes from the ride as possible, also diving into the haunted mansion’s significance to New Orleans. This is all very admirable, and some Disney fans are surely going to be satisfied by just how many Easter eggs they can find on-screen. However, there’s not much else to take away here. Unless you’re just looking for an easy way to kill two hours.
The ultimate problem with Haunted Mansion (2023) is that it cannot identify any kind of core audience. The story follows a gang of unlikely colorful characters as fate brings them under the roof of the haunted mansion to possibly bring peace to its 999 cursed spirits. The group is led by Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a paranormal tour guide and former scientist from New Orleans filled with grief from his past. Ben is joined by Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), who were actually looking to set up a Bed and Breakfast in the mansion before learning that it was cursed. An oddball priest named Father Kent (Owen Wilson), an amateur medium named Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), and Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), a college historian and professor, round up the core gang of misfits. Winona Ryder, Hasan Minhaj, and Dan Levy also make brief comedic appearances.
Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise found great success by using the iconography of a famous theme park ride as a point of reference, not as literal plot points. The Pirates and Haunted Mansion rides are very similar in that they’re both rich with scenes and characters to borrow from but are still simple enough to add as many new elements as necessary in order to work as a film. For whatever reason, Haunted Mansion uses the ride as more literal source material, trying to find an excuse for basically every ride reference rather than integrating them more naturally. It gets to the point where the movie drowns itself in its own lore, spending way too much time giving the main villain, the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), a complicated backstory halfway through the movie. But isn’t this what fans of the ride would want to see? Think again.
As the plot gets more tedious, Haunted Mansion falls into the habit of essentially going down a checklist of what would appeal to Disney fans the most. This isn’t always the worst offense; however, this kind of fan service doesn’t work here when the rest of the movie doesn’t really feel made for fans of the Haunted Mansion ride. You would think that fans of this IP would want to see as many ghosts and references sure, but maybe backed up by a Gothic or bone-chilling atmosphere and some genuine scares? It’s hard to believe that fans of the Haunted Mansion ride were dying for a big-screen adaptation where characters say one liners in the vein of: “Well, that just happened.” as they’re being chased by ghosts. And the mixed humor doesn’t stop there, it frequently comes up even in scenes that are supposed to be the most “spooky.”
Lakeith Stanfield and newcomer Chase W. Dillon still leave an impression on the viewer despite the characters around them being forced to spew cheap jokes. Haunted Mansion does have something to say about grief and letting go when the movie does take a few breathers away from the comedy. Stanfield and Dillon give this story as much heart as they can spare, and their charming dynamic carries the film until the very end. Dillon, in particular, is the most hilarious from the cast ensemble. Owen Wilson and even Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota spare a few chuckles, of course. Though it’s Dillon who translates more humor and emotion with his hilarious facial impressions and youthful innocence. It’s a shame he and Stanfield are thrown in the middle of a movie that can’t fully dedicate itself to its niche concept, or decide who it’s really for.
Haunted Mansion wants to appeal to all audiences with its generalized (often flat) comedy and satisfy the fans of a very unique theme park ride. In this case, you can’t have both. A movie that tries to be for everyone ends up alienating the targeted audience that was always going to support it in the first place. In the end, it’s hard to tell who will walk away from this movie wanting seconds. At least it’s not the worst way to distract the kids.