This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, HAUNTED MANSION being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Haunted Mansion has always held a special place in my heart. Not only is it my all-time favorite ride, but as a child, it introduced me to the mysterious and spooky side of things. It felt like a home suited for a weird kid like me, someone drawn to exploring the darker aspects of life. Over the years, Disney made attempts to bring the Haunted Mansion to life in the 2003 film starring Eddie Murphy and a Haunted Mansion special featuring the Muppets. However, neither of these adaptations truly captured the essence of the Haunted Mansion, although the Muppets came close. Now, fast forward to this week where we have the newest adaptation of the ride in Justin Simien‘s HAUNTED MANSION, which boasts a star-studded cast that is sure to excite fans.

In HAUNTED MANSION, we are introduced to Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), a former paranormal investigator who now begrudgingly conducts tours of spooky areas in New Orleans for out-of-town tourists. From the outset, it’s evident that he carries the weight of a terrible loss that has deeply impacted his desire to continue learning more about the paranormal. One day, Father Kent (Owen Wilson) visits him and tempts him with a job that promises a substantial amount of money if he can help a single mom rid a haunted manor of its supernatural beings. Reluctantly he accepts the offer and travels to the decaying manor where he meets Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son, Travis (Chase Dillon).

After putting on a façade and pretending to have banished the ghosts, he takes the payment and returns to his home, only to realize that something unearthly has followed him back. With nowhere to turn, Ben makes his way back to the manor along with Father Kent in hopes of quickly resolving these ghostly encounters. When that fails, they enlist the help of a ragtag team, including a historian (Danny DeVito), a psychic (Tiffany Haddish), and a few well-known spirits in hopes of ridding whatever dark entity has taken hold of the mysterious manor.

Solid storytelling

Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Written by Katie Dippold, the film does a solid job of weaving in a compelling story that skillfully addresses themes of death and grief, while managing to keep it engaging and enjoyable for both kids and adults. As I mentioned earlier, adapting this ride for the screen hasn’t been an easy task. The ride itself barely provides a backstory, but Dippold crafted one that centers around the history of the infamous Hat Box Ghost and his haunting presence within the manor. Fans will be thrilled to see how she sprinkled the film with numerous Easter Eggs and even paid homage to the beloved haunted mansion situated in Orlando, a personal favorite of mine. Dippold’s genuine passion for the attraction is easy to see.

A highlight of the film is the impressive production design. The audience is immersed in the atmospheric setting of New Orleans which is amplified by director Justin Simien who is from The Big Easy. Though the movie takes place in modern times, there’s a hint of old-school aesthetics that adds to the movie’s charm.

Of course, no Haunted Mansion would be complete without a memorable manor, and this film’s portrayal does a superb job of showing that. The mansion exudes an aura of foreboding tucked away along a desolate road. Instinctively you know you shouldn’t disturb it, yet you can’t resist the mysteries of it. When the inevitable happens and the grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize (and to cause havoc), the CGI and practical effects used strike a good balance and make the world between the living and dead feel more palpable.

Humor and horror blend in HAUNTED MANSION

Photo by Jalen Marlowe. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The main theme of the movie revolves around matters of the heart. Stanfield does an excellent job of baring his vulnerable side to allow the audience to empathize with his character’s struggle as he grapples with grief. In contrast, Rosario Dawson’s portrayal brings a heartwarming feel to her character, along with a subtle yet unwavering strength that exudes confidence. Meanwhile, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, and Danny DeVito bring oodles of humor to their roles.

When dealing with such heavy topics as death and grief, those moments of humor are much needed to lift the heaviness from the scene. It’s hard to ride that fine line between humor and horror, but through Dippold’s writing and Simien’s direction, the humor can seamlessly complement the film’s emotional aspects. However, the true standout performance comes from Chase Dillon, who portrays Travis. An old soul in a 9-year-old body, Dillon truly steals the show by giving a heartfelt performance that makes it hard to not feel protective over him.

Though a lot of the acting was solid, there were a few hindrances. There were moments where it felt like some of the actors, specifically Stanfield, were merely reciting lines from the script. Jamie Lee Curtis, known for her commanding presence on screen, unfortunately, didn’t quite capture the right essence for the iconic character, Madame Leota. Meant to be a powerful and formidable being, Curtis’ portrayal fell somewhat short in delivering what should be a fiery, memorable performance.

A safe adaptation

Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I think it’s also important to note that considering the numerous allegations against Jared Leto, it would have been a simple decision for Disney to replace him with literally ANY actor. Leto’s character, the Hat Box Ghost, is mostly portrayed through sketches and voice, making his presence minimal. However, the voice acting lacked impact, and had a more talented voice actor been chosen for the role, the character could have left a stronger impression.

Overall, this adaptation offers a lot that fans of the ride will appreciate. Simien, who has played in the horror sandbox before with Bad Hair, does a tremendous job of bringing the horror genre to audiences of all ages while at the same time making sure to ground the film in a sense of realism. Although I had hoped the film would push the boundaries of what they could achieve, this was a reminder for me that my expectations aren’t always going to align with the director’s vision or the creative limitations imposed by studios.

Nonetheless, I consider this to be the best adaptation of The Haunted Mansion thus far and one that will usher in kids who find themselves drawn to the weird and unexplainable. Do I hope someday there will be a more darker, scarier version? Absolutely (looking at you, Guillermo del Toro).

But until then, I suggest you all make final arrangements to see HAUNTED MANSION when it arrives in theaters on July 28. Just make sure not to forget your death certificate…

Shannon McGrew
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