Haunted Mansion (2023)

Directed by: Justin Simien
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Written by Patrick Hao


Disney has been trying to replicate the success of “Pirates of the Caribbean” for the last twenty years. What they do not seem to understand with that specific theme park attraction is how divorced the Gore Verbinski movie is from the actual ride. Besides nods to the ride such as pirates singing “Yo Ho (a Pirate’s Life for Me),” and some borrowed pieces of imagery, “Pirates of the Caribbean” owes more to Burt Lancaster swashbucklers and Ray Harryhausen adventure films.

Justin Simien’s “Haunted Mansion” had the chance to do that as well. Objectively (yes I said its objective), the Haunted Mansion theme park attraction is the best ride in the Disney parks. Its mix of old-time magic effects and visual distortions is a testament to the creativity of the Disney Imagineers. But, the overall narrative was not a primary concern. There’s a reason the ride has a Medusa, a flying Dutchman, and a skeleton knight. Simien’s “Haunted Mansion” however, feels too concerned with being faithful to the ride. The film is filled with direct lifts of characters from the original attraction which holds the film back from being a separate entity as opposed to corporate synergy.

You can see what the creatives in “Haunted Mansion” wanted to do. As you can imagine for any horror-esque film, grief is a primary factor in the characters’ motivations. LaKeith Stanfield plays Ben Matthias, a scientist who invents a camera that can see “ghost particles”. His science career goes out the window after succumbing to his grief when his wife is killed in a car accident. He gives up his science career and assumes her position as a ghost tour guide in New Orleans. When Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) move into an antebellum-style plantation mansion to find it filled with ghosts, they employ the help of Ben with his ghost camera, Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a psychic, and Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), a local historian, to help exorcize the evil spirits from the house.

First and foremost, “Haunted Mansion” is stuck in the in-between. The film is targeted at the fun-for-all-ages demographic. So the film is handcuffing itself from being too scary or spooky. It also leans heavily on the slapstick comedy that undercuts any building momentum of the horror. Horror comedy is certainly a genre that works, but it might be the hardest blend to execute successfully. A film that is neither a comedy nor a horror, “Haunted Mansion” begins feeling like a ghost – a film stuck in the in-between of neither.

The cast is giving it their all, each imbuing their characters with the charm of their personas. LaKeith Stanfield in particular gives a shockingly grounded performance of an indie drama despite the film needing him to perhaps be a little bigger in his performance to match the tone of the rest of the film. But, what is most offensive is how inoffensive the film is. Choices are made, but they all seem to be the safest choices possible.

Rather than paying homage to the great haunted house movies like “The Haunting” or being silly like the William Castle movies, the route that “Pirates of the Caribbean” went, “Haunted Mansion” is corporate synergy at its finest. Disney theme park numbers are down this year (mainly due to the many inefficient choices the Company has made to make the parks a chore rather than fun), so why not make a movie that can both help theme park numbers and the film numbers. It feels especially disappointing for the once-promising director Justin Simien to seemingly be stuck in IP limbo.

“Haunted Mansion (2023)” Trailer

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