Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion Contains A Labyrinth of Surprises

Disney’s Haunted Mansion is the third film (after 2003 Eddie Murphy-starrer and a 2021 Muppets variation) to be based on the Disney theme park ride. As the name suggests, this is yet another haunted house comedy where a single mother, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) hoping to open a bed-and-breakfast discovers that her new home is haunted. She soon recruits the assistance of Ben (LaKeith Stanfield); a tour guide and former astrophysicist with a tragic story, to rid her house of ghosts. Haunted Mansion is loaded with references to the theme park attraction that might be memorable for viewers who’ve experienced it or have seen the two previous movie incarnations. For others, it’s an average, charming family comedy featuring a ragtag group of eccentrics: a protagonist with far too much emotional intensity (Stanfield), an ambitious single mother and her endearing son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), an oddball priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a genuine psychic, Harriet (the terrific Tiffany Haddish), and a college historian, Bruce Davis (a playful Danny DeVito).

Although Haunted Mansion proposes a labyrinth of surprises, bouts of humour, and tries to depict a sincere tale about loss and grief, it struggles to find the right balance between its spooky horror setting and endeavour to be a silly family comedy. The story seems wasted on its crackerjack cast, it has some hilarious one-liners (primarily delivered by Owen Wilson), and everyone involved is committed to making this film appear intriguing but with mixed results. What it is, however, is plain fun.

The third act is a final showdown against the big bad of the house, a centuries-old malevolent ghost (played by an unrecognisable Jared Leto) and is chaotically stretched out. Haunted Mansion does have its charms, though; it is wonderfully reminiscent of old Disney movies. When the clock strikes at midnight, there are chandeliers levitating across hallways and objects of the house appear in places they’re not meant to be, knights in armour chase residents of the mansion, statues turn their heads and wail, and to put it simply, every ghost is suddenly up to no good.

Director Justin Simien (Dear White People) has a steady hand on the story, and screenwriter Katie Dippold (The Heat) douses the script with plenty of humour. Some of it lands, some of it doesn’t. There are jump scares and there’s enough spooky goings on, but it is at its heart a family film. The cameos are spectacular — particularly that of Jamie Lee Curtis as Madam Leota. Winona Ryder, and the always hilarious Dan Levy, despite appearing for brief moments, bring so much life to their performance.

Haunted Mansion earnestly tries to depict the tragedy of grief and loss, the isolation they bring, and how they’re often impossibly hard to cope with. It disguises itself as a tale of love and loss, but it is also a feature-length promotional device that is dedicated to making the viewer want to experience the amusement park ride. It’s a fun one-time watch that guarantees plenty of laughs, but whether it’ll stand as a memorable standalone film is worth questioning.

Director: Justin Simien

Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson

Writer: Katie Dippold, (Based on The Haunted Mansion by Walt Disney)

Fatemeh Mirjalili

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