haunted mansion - disney
Credit: Disney
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Haunted Mansion — Justin Simien

July 26, 2023

It’s quaint to look back on it now, but there was a time when making a film based on an amusement park ride was met with consternation over the state of the film industry. In the early 2000s, when Disney announced they’d be turning some of their most beloved Magic Kingdom attractions into movies, the news was greeted with mockery and extreme skepticism, hanging over the studio until the instant audiences were charmed by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, at which point no one seemed to much care anymore about the film’s origins. Now, after twenty years of IP encompassing board games, dolls, and salty snacks being refashioned into major motion pictures, a theme park ride to film adaptation feels, if not exactly principled, rather benign by comparison.

Disney’s Haunted Mansion isn’t even the first time this particular ride has been brought to the big screen: it previously inspired 2003’s The Haunted Mansion — at the risk of making the same joke as everyone else, drop the “The”… it’s cleaner. That earlier film is a long-forgotten, particularly grating family comedy fronted by a motor-mouthed Eddie Murphy, and the kindest thing that can be said about director Justin Simien’s (Dear White People) update is that it clears the very low hurdle of surpassing the original. Rather than being built around a single star, the new film functions as an ensemble, bringing together a handful of well-established, not necessarily complimentary, comedic actors to deliver exactly the performances one would expect in a film about a group of good-natured charlatans bustin’ ghosts. But that actually speaks to the overarching, “good enough for government work” nature of the film; Simien restages the Disney Imagineers’ spooky projections, gothic production design, and PG-rated gallows humors with an expensive, VFX-heavy spit-polish that possesses little invention, verve, or even a clear sense of what everyone involved hoped to accomplish.

Set, and partially filmed, in and around present-day New Orleans, our main character is Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a former astrophysicist who spends his days hiding out in bars, hoping to avoid the chipper tourists he’s being paid to guide around the French Quarter. Ben once had a wife he loved and a passion for designing cutting-edge camera lenses that could be used to photograph the “unknown world,” but tragedy robbed him of the former and, with it, any interest in the latter. Approached by an avuncular priest, Father Kent (Owen Wilson), with a request to use his “quantum camera” to photograph a local haunted house, and prodded with a “do you want to be a hero?” prompt, Ben reluctantly agrees to help — the $2,000 the homeowner is paying has more to do with Ben’s decision than the stir of heroism. Driving out to a creepy old manor belonging to single mother, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), and her nine-year-old son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), and unmoved by whatever traumatizing events have transpired in the house, Ben can barely bother to go through the motions (he even pretends to operate the camera after forgetting to charge its batteries). He strolls the halls, counts his cash, and then drives home only to discover a particularly impish spirit, a sea captain briefly seen in one of the mansion’s sinister-looking portraits, has attached itself to him, flooding his home with ocean water and flinging harpoons at him until he relents and returns to help Gabbie.

It’s practically a haunting as chain letter: anyone who steps foot in the house is tormented, no matter where they go, until the curse that’s been placed on the home has been lifted. In addition to Father Kent, who naturally roped Ben in just to get himself out of this mess, this cadre is joined in short order by unreliable medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and cantankerous university professor Bruce (Danny DeVito). Eventually, everyone is camped out in the living room or exploring hidden passageways, trying to exorcise the dark presence inhabiting the house; that would be the evil “Hatbox ghost” (Jared Leto, in an unrecognizable, almost entirely CGI performance that still gives off try-hard energy), who has dominion over the other spirits of the house. For you see, there are 999 spirits haunting this mansion, and he only needs one more to enact his fiendish plan.

If you’ve visited a Disney park before, then that number probably rings a bell; as, for that matter, might the Hatbox ghost (a glitchy part of the attraction that was pulled shortly after it opened in the ’60s, only to be greeted with much fanfare when it was brought back roughly a decade ago). That’s because the film primarily exists as a feature-length version of “I understood that reference.” The film constructs sequences seemingly just to showcase bits from the ride, like the antechamber where the walls appear to stretch, the three hitchhiking ghosts, or the disembodied fortune teller confined to a crystal ball (Jamie Lee Curtis in a small role). The film’s ticking-clock structure never registers with any urgency for either the filmmakers or the characters, in part because it’s never entirely clear what will happen should Hatbox’s plan succeed or whether the nearly 1000-strong ghosts are merely puckish inconveniences or genuinely deadly (the distinction seems to differ on a scene-by-scene basis). The screenplay by Katie Dippold — having also co-written 2016’s remake of Ghostbusters, she has experience with both the supernatural and middling, nostalgia-trap comedies — oscillates between family-friendly gruesomeness, sitcom-level bickering, and momentum-stalling digressions into grief. That last one falls most heavily onto Stanfield, who’s not only saddled with a dead wife backstory, but is frequently paired opposite Dillon’s solemn tween who’s bullied at school and yearns for a father figure; despite having stolen many a scene in Atlanta with his deadpan aloofness, the film doesn’t seem especially interested in harnessing Stanfield’s considerable comedic talents.

But the most surprising thing about Haunted Mansion is Simien’s involvement and how all but imperceptible his voice is here. A playful provocateur whose past work is defined by the way it foregrounds race — even his previous foray into horror-comedy, 2020’s Bad Hair, uses a possessed weave to explore the extreme lengths black women go to in order to conform to “mainstream” beauty standards while navigating the corporate-media landscape — you have to squint awfully hard in Haunted Mansion to detect any sort of directorial imprint or recognizable style; a stray reference to the police being only slightly preferable to ghosts here, some embellished costume choices there. But like everyone else involved with the film, Simien’s philosophy this time around seems to be “collect a check and don’t make waves,” which, for a filmmaker often defined by his discursive concerns and almost confrontational approach to theme, is a little disheartening. Perhaps for his follow-up the director can make a horror film about a promising young filmmaker being absorbed by an outwardly cheerful, transnational conglomerate that drains them of their personality. Now that’s scary.

DIRECTOR: Justin Simien;  CAST: LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito;  DISTRIBUTOR: Walt Disney Pictures;  IN THEATERS: July 28;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 2 min.