As a fan of spooky things, and also fun, I of course love the Disney Parks’ Haunted Mansion rides. I want to go on more of them. I hear the ones in Paris and Shanghai and Tokyo are really cool. For fans of these rides, specifically the Disneyland one, Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion movie has plenty of “Oh hey, it’s that from the ride!” moments. Katie Dippold’s script offers a surprising amount of tragedy to go along with the ghosts, which surprised and delighted. There’s even quite a few scare moments that just stay on the family side of the line. And yet, they felt like it needed to mostly be a weird comedy, too. Some of it worked, some did not.
If you’re someone like my mother, you might have asked “Why would they make another Haunted Mansion movie?” To which I’d reply, “Well, the 2003 Eddie Murphy version was notoriously terrible and people still love the theme park ride.” And it seems like this is the raison d’etre. After years of toying with whether they’d give Guillermo del Toro the keys to the spookiest house in Disney’s neighborhood, the company instead decided to play it very, very safe and effectively just retread a lot of the same ground as the first movie. A family moves in, ghosts haunt them, they have to “find a way out” out of the situation.
The family in question is Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillion) who buy and move into the Gracey Mansion in Louisiana when they find it for cheap on Zillow. Uh oh, it’s very haunted, so they need some help. The seemingly exorbitantly wealthy single mother then assembles a Dream Team of ghost hunters, including the priest Kent (Owen Wilson), psychic medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), and professorial haunted house expert Bruce (Danny DeVito). However, chief among them is physicist-turned-tour guide Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) who had invented a spectral energy camera, prior to a personal tragedy. They have to figure out why the ghosts are so aggressive, and why ghosts follow them home.
In addition to all of these people are some of the ride’s more famous ghosts. We have the psychic-in-a-crystal-ball Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) who helps them, and the Hat-Box Ghost (Jared Leto) who is the movie’s main villain. Want your Black Widow husband killing ghost? She’s there. The portraits of the two guys killing each other in a duel? Here too. Long hallways, stretching rooms, hitchhiking ghosts, all in attendance. And some of them provide legitimately good scares, the likes of which I wasn’t expecting in a Disney movie.
I’d love to say the movie works all the time. Stanfield gives a remarkably grounded, touching performance as a man dealing with profound grief. All good ghost stories have to have an element of sadness, and this one doesn’t shy away from that. The ghosts are never played for laughs, either, which I think is incredibly smart. The Haunted Mansion ride is fun-spooky. It needs to keep that kind of “ooh!” For the most part, this movie does that. And we learn about the ghosts and their history and how to end this weird curse. The plot and emotion are all there.
However, the biggest issue is they hedged their bets by making it a studio comedy. Haddish, Wilson, and DeVito all have chops for days, and some of what they have to say and do is really funny. Especially Wilson, who has some legitimately funny moments. But did we need them? Did this movie need to be a comedy full of improvised or extended jokes? We also get a number of big-name cameos doing especially silly things. Honestly, it felt like Simien (who directed Bad Hair previously) and Dippold (who wrote 2016’s Ghostbusters) had battling sensibilities that ended up both coming out in the finished film. I know I’m a horror guy first and foremost and others’ mileage may vary, but it just felt unbalanced.
I also need to point out some truly bizarre product placement. Every movie has product placement, but because this movie takes place in an old house, it’s harder to have new products just sitting around. So at various points in the movie, one of the characters will say a store or business by name. I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed it to this degree. It happens at some truly inappropriate times and pulled me right out of the story.
Haunted Mansion is not a train wreck or anything. It’s enjoyable enough. Family horror was something I grew up with and I miss it. I don’t think Hocus Pocus 2 was good at all, and this is much, much better than that. I think it could have been very good if it had let some of the zanier comedy fall by the wayside and embrace the family drama and spooky thrills. Stanfield is doing some amazing work here and I think that alone needs recognition. But I think the movie is not funny enough to warrant so much attempted comedy, especially when the ghost elements work so well on their own. Let the grim, grinning ghosts socialize without lame attempts at comedy getting in the way.