Film Review: Haunted Mansion is disappointingly (un)dead on arrival

Unlike Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise, The Haunted Mansion is one such Disney theme park ride that actually has a decent jumping point for a filmic incarnation.  But unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise films we saw defy the odds and turn the most basic of premises into larger-than-life adventure capers, Haunted Mansion fails to make good on any of its atmospheric potential – not even clearing the bar set considerably low by the studio’s first attempt some 20-years prior with the Eddie Murphy-led The Haunted Mansion.

Unsure who it wants to cater for, Justin Simien‘s supernaturally silly outing lacks the wit and intelligence needed to keep the adults paying attention, but injects a certain misguided gravity that younger viewers will find uninviting, resulting in a peculiarly paced, personality-confused film that feels practically (un)dead on arrival.

Giving us the most basic of backstories, the Katie Dippold-penned script introduces us to Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield, the usually reliable actor looking like he’d rather be anywhere else) and his meet-cute with Alyssa (Charity Jordan), a ghost tour guide operating the “haunted” sites of New Orleans.  Love is in the air for the two almost instantly, so, naturally, when we fast forward to a few years later we learn Alyssa has passed away and Ben, perennially grumpy, is hosting the tours instead.

Given Ben’s constant state of scepticism, there’s supposed to be hilarity in the fact that, as a scientist with a tie to the afterlife, he’s hired to take photos and either confirm or debunk the presence of ghosts in people’s homes.  Because Ben has no belief in ghosts, he completely dismisses the fears of Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, trying her best with what she’s given), a mother who believes her recently acquired house – the titular haunted mansion – is, well, haunted, and that she and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), aren’t safe.  We all know that Ben is going to end up back in the house at some point so this painfully paced 123 minute “ride” can finally start, but we’re subjected to a few more useless minutes of him realising that leaving the house hasn’t rid him of any spirit contact, and he’s just as haunted as Gabbie and Travis.

Ben isn’t the only poor soul who can’t help but return to the mansion, with Owen Wilson‘s exorcising priest, Tiffany Haddish‘s sassy medium, and Danny DeVito‘s historian all thrown into the fray, setting the film up for hopeful hijinks as they try to communicate with the spirits in a variety of ways that plays to each of their respective talents; Jamie Lee Curtis is also involved here as the spirit incarnate of Madame Leota, a world-famous medium, but there’s the question around how culturally appropriate her vocal work is that it’s best to not comment on her much further.

With so many characters, Haunted Mansion falls into a trap of trying to flesh them all out with a heft of sub-plots that, whilst understandable, only expand the film rather than enrichen it, and despite so much capable talent on hand as said characters, the material is so weak that very few of them rise above the page; Haddish is probably the closest to embracing the camp nature of her character.  Two characters that further fuel the fire of too much, but it’s ultimately to our disadvantage as viewers that we don’t see more of them, are those portrayed by Winona Ryder and Dan Levy.  In one of the film’s most bizarre sequences – in the sense that it adds literally nothing to proceedings and feels as if it belongs in a different film entirely – Ryder, as a bored ghost tour operator (though her dry delivery feels intentional over the insulting casualness of Stanfield), and Levy, as a murder mystery party host, swan about with a knowing sense of humour and momentarily add momentum, lulling us into a false sense of delayed security in the process.  I couldn’t tell you what either character has to do with the plot – or why both actors said yes – but they’re the most interesting aspects, which says a lot for a minute-long appearance in a movie running at over two hours.

By the time Haunted Mansion comes to a close – where we’ve also been subjected to a wasted Jared Leto as the story’s main villainous culprit, The Hatbox Ghost – we’re relieved at the thought that no longer will we have to suffer (never mind the surviving ensemble).  Sporadically creative, but mostly a tragic waste of talent and potential, Haunted Mansion should’ve been a much smoother ride than what is encountered here – especially as one of the few Disney theme park rides with a narrative already built in.


Haunted Mansion is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.