Haunted Mansion (2023) Review
A VISUAL FUN, YET FORGETTABLE
HAUNT OF A MOVIE
In 2003, Walt Disney Studios struck cinematic gold with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a live-action movie that took the premise of one of their popular park attractions and made it into a full feature length film. The success of The Curse of the Black Pearl propelled the studio to launch both a franchise underneath the Pirates of the Caribbean series (combining a total of five films under its belt) and showed that the “House of Mouse” could make money of making cinematic movies that are based around other prime staples of their theme park attractions. In fact, Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t the only (before or after its release) that saw Disney come up with this idea of adapting their theme park rides, with such examples of movie being released, including 2000’s Dinosaurs, 2002’s Country Bears, 2003’s Haunted Mansion, 2015’s Tomorrowland, and 2021’s Jungle Cruise just to name a few. Although, while those movies were adapted into cinematic representations, most were met with mixed reviews and moderate box office success, with Pirates of the Caribbean being the most lucrative and popular amongst moviegoers. Now, Walt Disney Studios and director Justin Simien present the latest film to take theme park attraction from Disney for a feature length film endeavor with a remake release of Haunted Mansion. Is this one “ghostly haunt” worth a visit or is it just another “run-of-the-mill” remake from Disney that doesn’t go anywhere?
Moving to New Orleans from New York to start a new life and to open up a bed and breakfast, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillion) move into an old Louisiana style mansion that they inherited. Upon arriving there, however, the property is haunted, filled with ghosts and spirits that call the estate their afterlife home, putting Gabbie in a difficult position where she and her son can’t leave. Looking for help from the outside, Gabbie finds Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), a once astrophysicist now turned paranormal tour guide with access to a special camera that is capable of catching such spectral images. When Ben is unable to solve the mystery of the haunted house, more experts are enlisted to such paranormal activity, including historian professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), religious priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), and psychic medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish). Gathering inside the decrepit manor, the team hatches up a way to understanding the cryptic history of Master Gracey, the former owner of the mansion, as they confronted the dangerous handlings of the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), who’s planning something evil for the guest. As Ben leads the charge in trying to figure out what the Hatbox Ghost is really after, he wrestles with oppressed grief over the loss of his love, Alyssa (Charity Jordan), of which the menacing ghost preys upon.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing my words from my review of Jungle Cruise (because they fit what I want to say in this review) ….it goes without saying that Disney has looked everywhere for “inspiration” for narrative storytelling within the cinematic realm. From popular bestsellers novels to “based on a true life” experiences, the “House of Mouse” has sort of left no stone unturned. This also comes in the form of their own attractions….as I mentioned above in my opening paragraphs. Naturally, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were the best and most lucrative success; finding many audience moviegoers (including myself) liking the misadventures of Jack Sparrow. That being said, I still think that the first Pirates movie was the best. Although, before I saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I do remember seeing 1997’s Tower of Terror, which is based on the classic Disney Park ride. I think I saw it on Disney Channel and, while it was just an okay movie (in general), it was actually my first movie that I saw of a film that is based on a Disney Park ride. The other movies that were mentioned (Country Bears, Haunted Mansion, Tomorrowland) were just kind of “meh” to me as they were just sub-par / mediocre endeavors that really didn’t amount to much. That being said, I actually did like 2000’s Dinosaur (the first seven minutes are amazing) as a sort of hidden gem / underrated releases from Disney, while 2021’s Jungle Cruise did come close to mimicking the Pirates of the Caribbean feeling, but did have a sense of being “bloated” in its undertaking. Overall, Disney is always trying to constantly reinvent itself to stay relevant in the modern age, so I think that the studio will continue to its on-going trends of turning their theme park attractions into feature length films.
This brings me back around to talking about Haunted Mansion, a 2023 a supernatural horror comedy and the latest reimagining of a Disney attraction brought to the silver screen storytelling. To be honest, I can’t remember much of 2003’s Haunted Mansion. I do remember seeing it once (sometime after its theatrical release) and that it starred Eddie Murphy, Terrence Stamp, Marsha Thomason, and Nathaniel Parker, but I only watched it once and don’t exactly recall some of the finer details of the feature’s characters and story. I remember the main plot, but that’s pretty much it. I just thought it was okay and didn’t really pay much attention to the project, especially after seeing Pirates of the Caribbean that same year and favoring that movie endeavor over this one. So, I was kind of a bit surprised to see that Disney was going to make yet another attempt of making a film about its famed park attraction ride when this project was announced. I mean…. another Haunted Mansion movie? I mean, the first one made decent money, but not the big numbers that the studio was probably projecting. Still, giving Disney’s recent trend of revisiting IPs in both their long history of entertainment and amusement park rides, it seems like a logical choice to come back to one of their famed attractions for another go around. To be sure, this movie would be standing on its own merits and integrity and not all connected to the 2003. So, almost like a remake. After the announcement, I really didn’t hear much about this upcoming project, with only a few minor exceptions of movies that were coming to be coming out in 2023 (toward the end of 2022). It wasn’t until I first saw the film’s movie trailer, which was where I actually got a good “first look” at Haunted Mansion, which (to its credit) looked pretty good. I mean…. from the preview alone looked pretty straightforward in its storytelling, but I was interested in the cast (i.e., Stanfield, Dawson, DeVito, Ownes, Haddish, Curtis, etc.).
So, I did check out the movie during its opening weekend, but, due to my backlog of doing other movie reviews, I decided to push it back for several month, especially as I neared the month of October, when everyone would be watching more Halloween-ish style movies and / or those fan-favorite “spooky” films. Now, nearing the end of month, I’m ready to share my thoughts on this recent live-action Disney film. And what did I think of it? Well, it just okay. While movie definitely has its moments through its usage of visual (both practical and CGI) creations as well as some nice callback references to the ride and a recognizable cast, but Haunted Mansion meanders too much in narrative and loses steam about halfway through, never fully captivating on its haunts and memorability. It’s not exactly a terrible movie, but the feature is stuck in a sort of middling limbo…. a forgetful attempt.
Haunted Mansion is directed by Justin Simien, whose previous directorial works includes such films as Dear White People and Bad Hair. Given his background on more smaller projects (in comparison to this one), Simien seems like an interesting choice to direct a somewhat “high profile” from a major studio like Disney. Thus, this makes the movie Simien’s most ambitious project to date and, while he does get in over his head a bit with such a large blockbuster endeavor (a bit more on that below), the director still manages to make the most of his time on this project and is able to generate enough gusto and energy to make the project come alive with its fun and amusement towards something of a haunted house type movie. In a surprising way, the movie’s story goes a little bit deep within its narrative and characters, especially in the character of Matthias and Travis, who share a special bond over the loss of someone they love and how they help to confront such tragedy. It was something that I didn’t expect from a project like this and I think that Simien did a great job in capturing those moments beautifully. The story itself for Haunted Mansion is a tad wonky at times, but, for the most part, it aims to be something greater than the ride of which it derives its haunts from, with Simien elevating the project that just more than just ghouls and other specters from the Great Beyond.
While the movie’s dramatic helps build upon some of the characters’ journeys and motivations in the story, Simien actually shines the best when the feature is thrusted into the more “fright mode” by conjuring up spooky imagery for the main characters to encounter and thwart around every turn. To be fair, this movie is geared towards more of the family friendly affair, so the scary moments aren’t too scary (for those wondering) and is probably safe bet for some of the more younger crowd (tweens age) to watch. This is where Simien makes Haunted Mansion excel by staging such ghoulish fun that definitely works throughout the movie. The ghost themselves are fun in their appearances and do make for some paranormal activities throughout the old mansion, which gives Simien enough material to play around with. Plus, before I forget, the movie does have a few Easter Egg snippets of callback references from its theme park roots, including a certain woman in a crystal ball and (my personal favorite) the famous ghost dancing in the ballroom scene from the attraction. There are a few others, but I won’t spoil it. In the end, I felt that Simien does an admirable job with helming a project like; making Haunted Mansion a fun and mildly entertaining translation from Disney Park ride attraction to a cinematic medium.
For it’s presentation, Haunted Mansion definitely looks fantastic through its usage of practical set designs and backdrop setting as well as in its visual look of its rendering of ghostly specters and other supernatural elements that are put on full display with CGI wizardry. With Disney fully committed to this project, it’s quite easy to see the studio has a lot of faith in this project, with the blockbuster attention to its presentation working wonders to the eyes (and ears as well). Every scene is oozing with delight in making us (the viewers) believe in such haunted place found within abandoned New Orleans style mansion. Of course, the inside of the mansion is what I mean, with intricate details of rooms and corridors that are covered in cobwebs and dusty that once was gleaming with polish and brightness. It’s that juxtaposition of that is what I’m driven home about, and the lofty estate (now falling into ruin) is a fantastic playground area for the various characters (good and evil) to play in. Thus, the Haunt Mansion’s “behind the scenes” key players such as Darren Gilford (production design), Victor J. Zolfo (set decorations), Jeffery Kurland (costume designs), and the entire art direction team should be praised for their efforts in making the film’s movie world (setting and background) look and feel cinematically moody (a good thing) and lavishing detailed. Also, the movie’s visual effects are pretty good as well and give life (through the usage of computer CGI magic), with many of the supernatural aspects brimming with excellent shots and ghostly designs that look horrifically fun in their presentation.
In addition, the cinematography work by Jeffery Waldron is spot on and does a pretty good job in providing the extra layer of cinematic within this film, providing plenty of dynamic nuances of the mansion (in and out) as well as fantastic usage of camera angles for some dramatic moments feel…well…more dramatic (and that’s a good thing). Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Kris Bowers, is solid throughout and gives off enough moments of spooky chills and tender dialogue driven scenes to help propel the characters and story whenever on-screen. It’s not the most sublime and / or great movie soundtrack, but Bowers’s music contribution to the feature is indeed good and a welcomed one.
Unfortunately, Haunted Mansion does suffer from criticism towards its storytelling and overall execution, which does the feature back from being a surefire hit from the “House of Mouse”. How so? Well, for starters, the movie is plagued with a rather uneven and less enticing story that what I was hoping for. Of course, this stems from the feature’s script, which was penned by Katie Dippold, which (as mentioned above) does really with love and loss in a few character that certainly do make for some compelling material, yet it still feels hollow for the most part of the story. The plot itself is very familiar and, while easy to follow, gets a bit convoluted at times, never really panning out the right way, which does create a lot of superfluous details and scenes that are handled (and presented) in a clunky manner. There is also way too many characters for the movie to follow, which does make them rather bland and uninteresting beyond their initial setup and is quite a shame considering the acting talent involved in this movie (more on that below). The story of Haunted Mansion is relatively good, but gets buried underneath such unnecessary details and sequences that makes the plot of the feature loose its momentum and interest by the time reaches its halfway point. Of course, the climax of the movie holds its own, but it comes off as a bit “too little, too late” heroic vibe for me….as I’m sure it will for other viewers as well. Thus, Dippold’s script could’ve (and should’ve) had more substance within the storyboarding process and had a better focus on the main narrative threads that just meandering through scenes in a careless freeform.
Also, I felt that the comedy was a bit letdown and rarely hit its landed target as intended. Of course, I did understand (from the get-go) that the movie was going to be geared towards tweens, so I knew the various jokes and gags were not going to be crass or raunchy. That being said, what’s presented is just mediocre, with the comedy found in Haunted Mansion getting a too silly, which doesn’t really gel well with the more darker / macabre elements. It also doesn’t help that the written dialogue for those said comedy antics and jokes are poorly written, which can be quite noticeable when performed by actors and actresses are best known for their comedic roles and can’t elevate it.
In addition, there’s a lot of missed opportunities that the movie doesn’t get a chance to shine its cinematic light, especially with the same primary set piece of a vast and haunted estate. While I mentioned that the visual presentation for the film was fantastic, it feels like the actual “haunted mansion” is a playground of various rooms and corridors for the characters to explore and encounter ghostly apparitions. It would’ve been beneficial to the movie if they had more exploration of the mansion to see a few more sudden ghostly interactions within the rooms. The overall mystery element that the film has over this derelict house gets quickly diminished in favor a more time of uneven jokes and gags that (as mentioned) don’t exactly go anywhere. Also, the overall tone of the feature is a bit wonky because of this, with the clashing of humor and malice not exactly going together well enough to harmony, which renders Haunted Mansion in place stuck in-between those two aspects and that’s not a good thing. In truth, Simien’s direction is a bit questionable at times as such a project like this needs a firmer hand on walking a fine line of being dark enough to be scary and knows when to present some moments of comedic levity. As it stands, Simien, while having a clear and concise thought for his vision of the project, ends up being a bit underwhelming at times and bumpy in others, which makes Haunted Mansion stand on shaky ground.
The cast in Haunted Mansion is a pretty good, with a lot of familiar faces and acting talents that are assembled for this particular project, which was one of the reasons why I was interested in the film itself. However, while the talent is there, most of the characters feel lukewarm within their involvement in the narrative and their own personal characters arc (small as they maybe) feels undercooked. Perhaps the best that the movie has to offer in both screen presence and overall “well-roundness” is in fact the film’s main protagonist character Ben Matthias, an astrophysicist turned tour guide, and who is played by actor LaKeith Stanfield. Known for his roles in The Photograph, Knives Out, and Judas and the Black Messiah, Stanfield has slowly and surely becoming a more prominent actor by appearing in more popular roles in both supporting and leading parts. Thus, for how the character is to be presented in Haunted Mansion, Stanfield is the actor for the job and does a fantastic job in the part of Ben Matthias. For his character’s personality, Stanfield has the right amount of acting projection to showcase Ben’s witty sarcasm and mild annoyance to people make for some humorous bits as well as displaying the right amount of heroics. Further still, the character, while does have a certain type of “straight forward” arc to follow (as a man of science and not much of a non-believer in the supernatural), there is definitely a great deal of emotional depth towards Ben, with Stanfield handling those moments quite beautifully, which surely does resonate with me as I’m sure other viewers as well. In the end, I felt that Stanfield was the best acting performer in the movie as well as his character of Ben Matthais hits the right amount of emotional drama to make for a compelling lead protagonist.
Behind him, actress Rosario Dawson (Ashoka and Rent) gives a somewhat decent performance in the role of Gabbie, a widowed doctor from New York who are the new owners of the mansion and plan to open up a bed breakfast. Dawson is a capable actress and shows that whenever she’s on-screen, which makes her a good fit for Gabbie, especially when interacting with Stanfield and several others of her co-stars. That being said, her character is half-baked and doesn’t really “come alive” in the feature, which renders Gabbie a rather bland and uninteresting person. Next, young actor Chase W. Dillion (The Underground Railroad and First Wives Club) plays Travis, Gabbie’s nervous and timid son. For his part, Dillion gives a decent performance in the role, playing up the various ticks and fearfulness that the young boy is faced with. There’s definitely an arc to his character, especially one that involves a mournful loss of his father, but it comes off as weak attempt. Plus, I felt that Travis (in both the character and in Dillion’s portrayal) became a bit annoying at times, whining and scared most of the time. It kind of reminded me of young actor Owen Vaccaro performance of Lewis Barnavelt in 2018’s The House with a Clock in its Walls, a too weak and timid to make for a memorable character. Lastly, actor Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club and House of Gucci) plays the film’s main villain of the Hatbox Ghost, a menacing spectral ghost that haunts the mansion and wishes to be set free from his imprisonment confines. Much like the rest of the movie, the Hatbox Ghost is pretty much a straightforward antagonist as he haunts and terrorizes the people within the mansion’s various walls, rooms, and corridors with devilish delight, but, while that may be a bit problematic in terms of bringing something new to the table, it still provides plenty of good vs. evil aspect to the proceedings, with Leto delivering a solid performance in bring the spectral being to life…vocally. Plus, as I mentioned with the visual effects, I did like the overall look of the Hatbox Ghost as he certainly looks quite detail and vicious within his physical appearance whenever on-screen.
Sadly, the remaining large supporting characters in the film, including actor Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers and Marry Me) as priest Father Kent, actress Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip and Like a Boss) as psychic Harriet, actor Danny DeVito (Batman Returns and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as college historian / Professor Bruce Davis, and actress Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween and Freaky Friday) as trapped psychic medium Madame Leota, don’t exactly shine as much as intended. These characters decent enough written to fit into the narrative of Haunt Mansion’s story, but the acting talent seems a bit subpar, which is very strange because of these players (in this grouping) has been known to make their screen presence shine immensely (sometimes as leads in TV / film projects) as well as producing several good laughs within their comedic timing. In Haunted Mansion, they don’t get the chance to shine as much or generate enough laughs with the material given to them. Heck, it’s almost like Disney restraining them from “let loose”, which I do get it (because it is a Disney project), but, at the same time, it diminishes involvement in the movie, with most being forgettable throwaway roles in their career.
The rest of the cast, including actor J.R. Adduci (The Slumber Party and The Suicide Squad) as the last owner of the mansion before it became haunted William Gracey, actress Erika Coleman (Stranger Things and Amazing Stories) as Willam’s deceased wife Eleanor Gracey, actor Steve Zissis (Togetherness and Happy Death Day 2U) as Roger, actor Hasan Minhaj (Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj and No Hard Feelings) as police sketch artist, actor Daniel Levy (Schitt’s Creek and Degrassi: The Next Generation) as entertainment tour guide Vic, actor Jo Koy (Wake and The Monkey King) as daytime bartender, and actresses Marilu Henner (Taxi and Johnny Dangerously) and Kathi Callahan (Claws and Flicker) as New Orleans tourist Carol and Carol, make up the minor supporting characters in the movie. Most (if not all) are really limited in the movie (only having one or two scenes on the project), but, for what it is worth, the talent involved in this grouping is fine, with a few being slightly memorable in their small screen time appearance.
Hired to investigate a haunt estate from ghostly spirts, Ben Matthias and a team of other paranormal experts battle against the Hatbox Ghost and his nefarious plans in the movie Haunted Mansion. Director Justin Simien’s latest film takes the classic Disney Park attraction ride and present a new cineamtic layer for its presentation, providing a good dose of spooky thrills and character drama to make the endeavor a perfect fit for a family movie night outing. While the movie struggles to find a proper tonal balance with its comedy and horror aspects as well as several sluggishly navigating plot points and most of the characters that are undercooked, the movie manages to rise in new areas, with a special interest from its solid presentation, great visual effects, and a playful / recognizable cast. Personally, I thought that this movie was just okay. It definitely had its moments of fun and entertainment as didn’t have much in the way of “high expectations” for this project, so I took it for, more or less, face value. That being said, I felt that the film could’ve been better handled, especially in its script shaping and character balance. Again, it’s not terrible as in the way of poorly managed, but just doesn’t have the lasting impression. Thus, my recommendation for this movie would be an “rent it” for some, especially for the more tween crowd (again, it’s more of a family friendly endeavor), and maybe a “iffy choice” for everyone else. In the end, while Disney will continue the idea of bringing their reinventions and reimaginings to life and in new cinematic ways, 2023’s Haunted Mansion may stand as a somewhat cautionary tale for some, with project having a good visual fun within its production, yet it is a forgettable haunt of a movie.
3.1 Out of 5 (Rent It / Iffy Choice)
Released On: July 28th, 2023
Reviewed On: October 29th, 2023
Haunted Mansion is 123 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and scary action