There’s No Life To Be Found in Disney’s Family Horror Haunted Mansion

Movies Reviews Disney
There’s No Life To Be Found in Disney’s Family Horror Haunted Mansion

In the summer of 2003, Walt Disney Pictures released a feature film based on one of their popular theme park rides, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The film was a surprise success, though you’d think the studio’s faith in the project was resolute, as it was produced on a $140 million budget, ran two-and-a-half hours, and sported an ensemble cast. Then, in November of that same year, they released a follow-up amusement ride adaptation, The Haunted Mansion. Made for a still-hefty $90 million and with a runtime of under 90 minutes, it was a decidedly more modest affair in practice but served as a decently spooky piece of gateway horror for kids, its disposable story anchored by a funny Eddie Murphy performance, engaging production design and a spare few sequences that would be genuinely frightening to children. It was a trifle, but a charming one.

2023’s Haunted Mansion adaptation bears more apparent resemblance to Pirates than it does to the original Mansion. It has its own sprawling cast, runs just over two hours and, only right for the age of ultra-ballooned studio film budgets, it cost $155 million. But as is the case with our expensive blockbusters 20 years down the line, those stats are no longer as frequently analogous to proficient craftsmanship guiding big spectacle to the silver screen, which is how you get Haunted Mansion: An ugly, bloated, ungainly mess of shallow brand augmentation; a completely spiritless movie about spirits. 

Expectedly, the extended lore of the famous Disney World dark ride is used as the basis of the story. We’re first introduced to Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a withdrawn former astrophysicist that now hosts corny walking history tours of New Orleans, but who has also built a ghost-catching camera that has caught the attention of Father Kent (Owen Wilson). Kent enlists Ben in helping single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon, somehow eking out the best performance of anyone here) to rid their new ominous manor of a major inundation of ghosts they’ve gotten stuck with. 

What no one tells Ben before stepping into the house is that if he ever tries to leave, he will be followed and tormented by ghostly activity until he is compelled to return, which is how our motley crew of characters—eventually also including the eccentric psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and crotchety university professor Bruce (Danny DeVito)—all end up trapped and investigating the mystery of this old estate. Everything seems to lead back to one particularly evil spirit: The Hatbox Ghost, an infamous component of the actual ride who is manifested here as a garish CGI creation supposedly played by Jared Leto. 

Just as well, this is also a film that is supposedly directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair), though the lack of any sense of individual style or flourish may make it hard to discern that it was directed by anyone at all. Simien becomes yet another casualty in a long line of interesting independent filmmakers sucked up by the Disney franchise conglomerate in order to churn out expensive heaps of cheap plastic. Haunted Mansion carries the unmistakable digital sheen and weightless sense of tacky visual effects that acts as an insignia for studio films these days, as well as a lack of clarity in its overall visual sense. For a film that mostly takes place at night, there’s a stunning disregard for properly lighting its dim environments. It’s like the murky and artificial opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny extended out to feature-length. The movie is literally hard to see. 

With a screenplay written by Katie Dippold (whose previous foray into legacy franchise writing was 2016’s Ghostbusters), the story is plodding, the themes overfamiliar, the characters woefully uninteresting. The PG-13 rating implies something that may be more geared toward adults (compared to the OG’s PG rating), but where it actually ends up is a no man’s land middle ground with a script that’s too colorless for kids and too trite for grown-ups. 

The performances are universally poor, a toxic combination of actors working with bad writing for parts they weren’t well-cast in the first place, their unification into an ensemble totally butchered by mangled, awkward editing. The comedic appeal of performers like Wilson, Haddish, and especially DeVito is bungled, their personalities diluted by being structured around attempts at humor that the performers don’t seem too confident in—everyone is operating at a lukewarm register that makes every scene play with an ambivalent, low-energy mien. Stanfield is particularly out of place, his very particular strength of playing aloof weirdos totally dismissed in favor of being broadly amenable as a blockbuster protagonist battling personal demons—I can’t believe it, but Haunted Mansion is another trauma horror movie. 

A movie like Haunted Mansion is always going to be, at its heart, a cinematic advertisement for the theme park, but couldn’t we at least run with that idea and make it fun? Making a movie based on a ride should be an excuse to throw the craziest ideas at the wall to see what sticks, overloading on creativity to try to match the immediate sensory anticipation and thrill of experiencing the actual attraction. Instead, we’re saddled with a glorified commercial that has an inflated sense of, well, everything: An inflated budget, an inflated runtime, and an inflated sense of self-importance and brand mythologizing. Haunted Mansion not only squanders its fan-favorite characters and iconography—Madame Leota as played by a totally checked-out Jamie Lee Curtis, a lousy set piece in the stretching room that begins the ride which includes a superfluous CGI crocodile climbing up the walls—but it does so while desperately seeking validation. It wants to be treated as something culturally estimable, a franchise on par with other high-earning ventures where unique creative perspectives are not allowed to infiltrate the staunch blockade of brand preservation. Despite how hard Haunted Mansion tries—the summer release date and climactic sequence in which all the characters come together to take down the Big Bad makes this feel like the Marvelfication of horror—it does little to convince the viewer of such an idea. 

To add insult to injury, one only has to think back to a decade ago when genre maestro Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct this project. There’s no telling if Disney would have ever let him get away with something as distinctive as he likely would have provided but, for a brief moment in time, one had reason to hope that Haunted Mansion could dispel its commercial roots and, like the original Pirates before it, become something at least mildly interesting and technically proficient. Maybe even scary and artful! Such an idea seems so far removed from the current studio system landscape I can’t believe it was ever contemplated by us foolish mortals.

Directors: Justin Simien
Writers: Katie Dippold
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Dan Levy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto
Release Date: July 28, 2023

Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.

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