To Disney’s credit, they’ve had a level of restraint in adapting rides into motion pictures. Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean’s huge breakout success led to multiple sequels to expand that billion-dollar franchise further. Still, it’s not like Space Mountain was right around the corner or as if we are coming up on Matterhorn and the Curse of the Yeti’s Gold. With that said, back in 2003, along with Pirates, another ride-based film did come out, The Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy. While Jack Sparrow soared, this other movie bored, and audiences quickly forgot about it. 20 years later, and we have a new attempt at taking on the beloved spooky theme park attraction, and, fortunately, this Haunted Mansion delivers plenty of bumps in the night and fun in the theater.
The general premise is this – what happens when a single mother (Rosario Dawson), her son (Chase W. Dillon), an Astro-physicist turned cynical tour guide (LaKeith Stanfield), a priest (Owen Wilson), a medium (Tiffany Haddish), and a professor (Danny DeVito) are all forced to live inside a large estate filled with ghosts? A lot of spooky mayhem. But it’s not the gruesome kind. No, despite the macabre implications based on various evil paintings, statues, and more that suggest the heinous end to many, this is a much more whimsical film that happens to pack its share of jumps fit for a family audience.
As a major horror fan, I often look at films like this and gauge how successful they would work as gateway horror films for a younger audience (or those just not used to watching scary movies). One of the best things to be said about Haunted Mansion is that for all the fun it has with its strong ensemble cast, the work is done to deliver a credible film featuring frights that can provoke a response from younger moviegoers without alienating them from wanting to see more films like it. I think that’s great. It can be fun to be scared in the right setting, and while there are many other things to delve into regarding why horror is a great genre, suffice it to say that this film delivers what’s needed in that department.
Given the use of the Disney attraction as a foundation for this feature, it was pretty entertaining seeing how tribute was paid to the ride. Obviously, the look of the house is vital, and many of the designs on the inside will be recognizable to those with even a passing memory of how it all goes down. With that in mind, you can tell the effort went into bringing in many more minor details and deep-cut references for the super Disneyland or Haunted Mansion fans. It’s one thing to see some familiar statues shifting their orientation while seemingly remaining still. It’s another catch certain items floating around or key costume design elements.
Plus – this film is chock-full of ghosts. As if Disney found a way to give the various visual effects groups a break by delivering something more abstract to work on, we are given the chance to see a variety of imaginative creations that reflect the traditional ghost designs from the ride. They feel appropriate for the film and range in how fearful they are supposed to appear. Ultimately, this is a horror comedy that leans on the silly side, so there’s a “gotcha” approach to a lot of what these ghouls accomplish, but it services the story as needed.
Director Justin Simien (Dear White People) adjusts well enough to this higher budgeted level of studio filmmaking. It may not be a film pushing too hard on deeper messaging (if anything, it goes out of its way not to delve into more intriguing territory that could have involved the evil Hatbox Ghost, who very easily could have been a plantation owner in New Orleans), but there’s enough going on that works to develop the characters who matter most. Also, this is a pretty good-looking movie. All the special effects and practical sets utilized to bring the mansion to life accomplish what’s needed, with some smart visual homages. Plus, getting at least some of the filming done in New Orleans allows the film to feel like it fits in some level of reality before taking things to heightened levels.
This cast is fun. Stanfield feels like a standout in terms of both his dry sense of humor and the extra effort given to make his tragic backstory ring true. Yes, this film hits on tropes to unite certain performers. Still, as an Oscar-nominated actor, Stanfield does what’s needed to remind audiences why he earned it. Meanwhile, Dawson essentially sits back in the straight-man role while everyone else is given various bits to work with, but she still helps keep things together.
Whether you’re a fan of one, some, or all of the others, there’s plenty of comedic weight being thrown around by Wilson, Haddish, and DeVito. Coming in at nearly two hours without credits, I can see the film stretching out a bit further than needed, hoping these various comedic antics will make up for it. That said, Haunted Mansion does its best not to squander the talent. It even packs in various funny cameos to further round it out. Plus, Jamie Lee Curtis takes on the “head in a crystal ball” part, which would always amount to further enjoyment.
Having been given free rein to deliver something, as long as the reverence for the popular ride was intact, I’m quite pleased with what Simien and writer Katie Dippold (among many others involved in its development) were able to pull off with Haunted Mansion. The film overstays its welcome a little bit, but there’s a solid cast here, lots of fun in pulling off the spooky visuals, and enough work at play to make for an enjoyable horror comedy that could win over younger or newer genre fans. That’s enough for me to say those curious should drag their bodies away from their homes and into the dead center of the theater.
The Haunted Mansion opens in theaters on July 28, 2023.