Of all the Disney theme park attractions, you’d think the Haunted Mansion would translate the most naturally to film. Yet, past attempts have been unnerving in all the wrong ways. 2003’s The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy might’ve been a grade above The Country Bears, but it was no Pirates of the Caribbean… well, the first Pirates movie, anyway. A Haunted Mansion reboot has been in the pipeline for nearly two decades, at one point having Guillermo del Toro attached. Directorial duties ultimately fell to Justin Simien, who previously balanced horror and comedy in 2020’s Bad Hair. Maybe he’ll take on the inevitable live-action Tangled remake next.
Simien’s Haunted Mansion feels closer to what the 2003 version should’ve been. It captures the gothic ambiance of the ride, embracing its PG-13 rating. For older audiences, it might not be Talk to Me, but it will trigger memories of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Kids, meanwhile, will either find the film scary, fun, or scary fun. It’d pair well with Hocus Pocus or The Watcher in the Woods on a Disney-theme Halloween night. Where Haunted Mansion struggles to match the charm of the ride is in the comedy department. One might assume that this would be where the film thrives, as Simien enlists a stacked cast of seasoned comedic talent.
LaKeith Stanfield’s Ben is a paranormal expert who doesn’t believe in ghosts. Ben is just looking to make a quick buck when Father Kent (Owen Wilson) asks him to investigate a ghoulish manor that a woman named Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) recently moved into. Despite Ben’s initial skepticism, he finds that the mansion is indeed a hot spot for ghosts, some more social than others. With a mysterious Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) keeping the living and dead hostage, our heroes also recruit a psychic (Jared Tiffany Haddish), a professor (Danny DeVito), and a head in a crystal ball (Jamie Lee Curtis).
As funny as these performers are, the jokes feel closer to Ghostbusters (2016) than Ghostbusters (1984). Screenwriter Katie Dippold notably worked on the lesser Ghostbuster film, although she also wrote The Heat and several episodes of Parks and Recreation. Despite those credits, the script is packed with more exposition than laughs. The filmmakers seem reliant on the cast to elevate the humor, but nobody is bringing their comedic A-game. Winona Ryder and Dan Levy, in particular, feel squandered in cameos that don’t go anywhere. While the numerous nods to the ride will provide plenty of smiles, the product placement (which includes Burger King, Baskin-Robbins, and Amazon) will provide cringes. Think the Walgreens scene from Hocus Pocus 2, but sprinkled throughout.
While the comedy isn’t on par with the chilling production values, Haunted Mansion catches viewers off guard with its meditation on grief. Stanfield brings surprising emotional gravitas to monologue about loss. Granted, the speech is obstructed by the namedrop of a popular brand, but Stanfield’s performance is so authentic that you’re willing to let it slide. Although we’ve seen better films about grief, Ben’s journey to acceptance makes for a deeper Haunted Mansion movie than expected. It might not be the best Haunted Mansion possible, but between the eerie atmosphere and commentary on loss, it’s probably the best one we’re gonna get. And that includes Muppets Haunted Mansion.