Haunted Mansion Movie Review
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I am 35 years removed from my last trip to Walk Disney World and a spin on the iconic ride, but that shouldn’t have stopped me from thoroughly enjoying Haunted Mansion (2023).
Yet, it did.
Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) is a former notable scientist at an existential crossroads grieving the loss of his wife. He keeps her memory alive by conducting her ghost tours in New Orleans’s French Quarter. He’s a staunch paranormal skeptic so it’s doubtful the tours are much fun for anyone, but it’s okay because he drinks a lot to keep from caring. Father Kent (Owen Wilson) shows up at his door, begging him for assistance. There’s a widow, Gabby (Rosario Dawson) and her young son Travis (Chase Dillon) who have taken residence in a dilapidated mansion outside of town, and they’re being terrorized by all manner of spirits. With other less-than-notable assistants, such as Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) a storefront medium, and Professor Davis (Danny DeVito) who have the working scientific knowledge of both the supernatural and the mansion, they work to uncover the sinister reason they’re all prevented from leaving.
The scares for Haunted Mansion come from the situational nightmares each character experiences, but that’s where the smoke and mirrors act begins to show its smudges and dirty fingerprints. For Ben, it’s the ghost of a fisherman who follows him home, for Gabby it’s menacing candles in the hall, and for all of them, it’s the menacing Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), collecting souls for his ultimate grand entrance. There’s the also a McGuffin of a Camera Obscura which plays little to no role in the outcome of the film.
This is not a Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) level of effort. Pirates of the Caribbean was an A-list undertaking with an enduring mythology that could carry it through 2.5 sequels (I said what I said). Haunted Mansion has a very “greenscreen on a soundstage” feel. Ghostly apparitions, elongated hallways, and paintings that move on their own are fine for an amusement park attraction that you’ll see for three seconds as your car moves through it to the next effect. But for a 122-minute movie, there simply isn’t enough story or practical effects and it’s ultimately too long by 35 minutes.
Overall, and I realize this is digging deep, Haunted Mansion has a very “Wonderful World of Disney” Sunday night movie aesthetic. There’s nothing particularly scary or adventurous, the comedy is campy bordering on cringe, and the characters feel very two-dimensional and devoid of authentic emotion. Worse, the mansion is just too large to even provide any sense of scale or peril. The rules surrounding everyone’s ultimate survival seem contrived and arbitrary, and let’s be real – the ghosts are central casting stock, from Desiccated Bride to Knights Templar to Miscast Mummy. We don’t know where the ghosts come from so everyone is confused.
Another automatic strike against movies like Haunted Mansion is really quite practical – why do two people need a mansion? I know New Orleans isn’t a cheap place to live, but there has to be a more cost-effective balance between affordability and usable square footage. Horror movie writers – please stop giving protagonists 3,500 more square feet than they need if you’re only going to use two rooms and a driveway.
There are cameos by Winona Ryder, David Levy, Marilu Henner, and a strong supporting role from Jamie Lee Curtis, and for the caliber of talent, everyone worked well with what they had. There just wasn’t much to work with. LaKeith Stanfield brings an antisocial gravity to Ben, who shows that grief is often just about getting through the long moments between drinks. Chase Dillon’s Travis gives vibes that he’ll be shoved into lockers for the rest of his life. Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito play standard-issue versions of themselves in costume so there’s no surprise as to what you’re going to get. Rosario Dawson has been regulated to “Mom who retrieves sheets and pillows”, because there’s nothing else for her to do. Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto stand out because they’re the only characters who look nothing like the actors portraying them, suspending disbelief long enough to hope a story will evolve. If only someone could have created a haunted house movie with just Stanfield, Leto and Curtis, a far less cluttered project could have been featured.
I haven’t lost my Disney magic. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying a film that doesn’t insult my sense of whimsy and fear of the supernatural. Haunted Mansion is still a movie in search of a story written by individuals who aren’t afraid to infuse a little terror into the fun. Feel free to explore this one when it arrives on Disney+ in about two months.
Haunted Mansion (2023) is rated PG-13 for headless haints, menacing manifestations, sinister spirits, booze, grief, loss of a parent, and the distinct possibility that you’ll look into your rearview mirror and see three ghosts following you home.