Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion is hitting theaters this weekend. This is the second attempted to adapt Disney’s beloved attraction The Haunted Mansion into a stellar blockbuster film. The first was the 2003 adaptation that starred Eddie Murphy, which, if I’m being honest, wasn’t great. And thankfully Simien does a little better with the material, but overall, I’m still waiting for a definitive adaptation to materialize.
That’s not to say the movie is a trainwreck. It’s not. On the contrary, it’s actually a step in the right direction when compared to 2003’s Murphy-starrer. But unfortunately, Simien’s vision, which features an all-star cast including LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, and Jared Leto, really just exists in a limbo of forgettable mediocrity and puzzling tonal shifts. And given the material and countless talented creatives that were at one point attached to the project, that essentially adds up to wasted potential.
The story follows Stanfield’s Ben, a physicist turned New Orleans supernatural tour guide following the death of his wife, who is asked to help investigate the eponymous haunted mansion by its new residents, single mother (and fellow widower) Gabbie (Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon). Somehow or another random characters like Wilson’s conman priest Father Kent, DeVito’s historian, Bruce, and Haddish’s medium Harriet get roped into the investigation since walking into the mansion automatically causes its ghosts to follow one home. The deeper the team investigates the mansion, the more they begin to uncover the startling truth about how the 999 souls that inhabit it came to be, and how it’s tied to the villainous ghost behind it all: The Hatbox Ghost (Leto).
If all that sounds random, but also chaotically structured, it’s because it is. It’s sad to speak this way, but Haunted Mansion feels like a product first, and a film second. It’s a movie that, while having its heart in the right place in regards to its themes of grief and social anxiety, reeks of a board room of executives going, “You know who we should get? Owen Wilson? Why? Because he’s conveniently filming Loki and he can do the ‘Owen Wilson’ schtick.” The same exact thing can be said about Haddish, Dawson, and DeVito; actors who have no place and no real purpose in this movie other than they needed a cast, these ones were available, and they can just play themselves to varying degrees. The movie flimsily tries to justify each characters’ sets of skills for the narrative, but it really doesn’t hold water, because these aren’t really characters the movie is concerned about from a skill level that’s logical to the narrative, so much as actors playing themselves for their defining traits.
We can count on Wilson to be the “aw shucks” laid back screw up. Haddish to be the loud and crass, but tough woman with attitude. And DeVito to be yelling and angry. Then there’s Dawson who is just… there. She’s actually the one character and actress that’s a waste of her potential abilities. But again, this is a movie where execs are hiring actors, not for their abilities and charm, but for schticks they perpetuated throughout their careers, and just having them lean heavily on those for the duration of the film, so it’s a bit expected.
But the movie is not devoid of bright spots. And thankfully the movie’s heart is derived from the equally committed performances of Stanfield, Leto, and Chase W. Dillon’s Travis. Stanfield’s character is probably the only one in this film that doesn’t feel like a 2D stock character. It feels like a true Simien-created multi-dimensional being. He and Dillon are both central to the film’s theme of grief. And their pain and lack of social skills feels real. Unlike the rest of the ensemble, they’re not just there to be blank bodies in a cash grab stock film. They’re there in service of the stronger story, and thereby enhance what we’re seeing on screen from something meaningless to something more substantial and heartfelt. How the two characters were written, and their bonds feel a lot more organic than a lot of the other aspects of the movie.
This includes the film’s novelty casting choices, such as Jamie Lee Curtis as Madam Leota, and Dan Levy and Winona Ryder in glorified cameo roles. There’s not much to say about Levy and Ryder apart from how hilarious they are in the film in their short amounts of screen time. But Curtis is playing a character that’s a staple of the ride. And she does a fine enough job, because she’s Curtis. But once more, the character and the talent isn’t given a whole lot to do in the role, and the way it was written makes it seem like anyone could have been Madam Leota. It didn’t need to be Jamie Lee Curtis because it’s a very templated character with little weight or real necessity other than exposition dumps.
I will say, one of the performances that did surprise me was Leto’s as The Hatbox Ghost. One aspect the movie manages to do quite well is establish a backstory for this character that stands as arguably the darkest part of the film. And that’s much more preferred than a lot of the sugar coated character narratives the 2003 movie had to offer. Leto gives a sinister performance that’s perfectly creepy and lives up to the backstory written for the character. His voice is unrecognizable and the motion capture effects look quite terrific.
It’s nice that the movie does have heart. And it’s great that the actors, despite being forced to lean heavily on their individual expected strengths, are giving the movie their all. But I think one of the things that really bothered me was the constant, abrupt tonal shifts the film takes. One minute it’s scary, then it’s supposed to be sad, then funny, all within a few short minutes per scene. For me it felt almost too all over the place without giving me a second to process the feelings it’s trying to get me to have. Am I supposed to be frightened in this scene? Am I supposed to feel sad? How about amused? Well when you tell me I need to jump from one to the other without letting me feel the first emotion, that ultimately results in me feeling nothing. And that’s how I felt for a lot of the movie.
Unfortunately the gags and jokes aren’t particularly interesting, and a lot of the narrative simply isn’t cohesive. It almost feels like an unfunny sketch comedy strung together very crudely to make something resembling a story that should be a lot more simple to tell. First we have to have ghosts following these characters home. Then we have them recruit different people. Then we have them learn the backstory of the mansion. Now the backstory of the backstory. Then we have them go find a MacGuffin. In between let’s do some trippy stuff for fun. None of it was worth investing in because it’s far too busy without ever coming together elegantly.
On a technical level, the movie looks and sounds great. The VFX are actually quite good, as are the makeup effects. I enjoyed that Disney didn’t try to make the ghosts look cute, and allowed them to at least look a lot more scary in the Buffy sort of way, rather than the cutesy route the 2003 film took. And the score by Kris Bowers is actually pretty terrific. Bowers blends classic ride themes with the feel of a New Orleans brass jazz band, and the results are catchy and fun. They compliment the film very nicely.
The other thing I enjoyed were the various Easter eggs scattered across the film. Taking the non-narrative elements of the ride and incorporating them into the story is not easy to do. Yet hitchhiking ghosts, the switching head of the Hatbox Ghost, the stretching room, and the murderous story of The Bride all feed into the larger story. It’s not always smooth, and the way they’re incorporated in some respects doesn’t always quite fit perfectly, but the effort is appreciated.
Overall, Simien’s attempt at a Haunted Mansion movie is better than the previous one. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it lacking. The heart is there, and the more mature themes of grief are too. But there’s a large part of it that feels like a hodgepodge of ideas from the ride and from Hollywood tossed out by executives and asked to be added to a blender to make a flavorless smoothie of meh. Despite their energy and fun performances, I asked myself why the actors involved were necessary for this story. And wondered over and over if this truly was the best they could do with the material they had. It’s not a terrible movie. And I think a lot of folks will have fun with it. But for me Haunted Mansion simply lacked a great deal of spirit.
Overall Score: C+
*This review was written during the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strike. To support the strike, please donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.*