Disney’s Haunted Mansion sees a group of experts take on a, well, haunted mansion, in this family-friendly horror-comedy.
When it comes to films based on their beloved park rides, Disney has had varying degrees of success. Pirates Of The Caribbean is a hugely popular franchise (albeit one that’s currently in limbo), but 2003’s The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy, was not quite so well received.
Since then, there have been attempts to make another Haunted Mansion, and this version of the project, directed by Dear White People’s Justin Simien and written by Katie Dippold, is the one that emerged victorious. It contains shades of the comedic 2003 version, but blends its comedy with a consistently spooky atmosphere and a dose of (family-friendly) horror. It doesn’t always mesh these successfully, and at times seems unsure of what kind of film it wants to be, but it’s definitely creepy and atmospheric fun.
LaKeith Stanfield is introduced as astrophysicist-turned-paranormal-expert-turned-tour-guide Ben, who works in New Orleans and refuses to give ghost tours after becoming disillusioned with the supernatural. Stanfield makes for an excellent leading man, and his character is one of the few to be properly fleshed out.
The same unfortunately can’t be said for Rosario Dawson’s Gabbie, though the young Chase Dillon threatens to steal the show as her son Travis. They move into the titular mansion and soon discover its haunted nature. The haunting scenes are really well executed, and it’s a shame there’s not more of them throughout the movie. In fact, a lot of them are seemingly cut out by an early time skip.
Gabbie and Travis initially flee the house, but later return, enlisting Ben’s help and telling him that they’ve been experiencing ghostly activity for months. Given the film’s premise, it would have been nice to actually see more of the hauntings, at least to get a sense of escalation and feel the impact on the family. This would have helped in creating empathy towards their characters, too, which are generally thinly-written.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of atmosphere in the film. The production design inside the house is so intricate and beautifully gothic, and the lighting is used to great spooky effect. The ghost designs vary in scare-factor, but the best of them are wonderfully creepy. This may be a bit too scary for particularly young children, but for the slightly older ones this works as a great introduction to scarier genres.
In addition to Stanfield’s Ben, there are other experts who come to deal with the ghosts. Among the supporting cast are Owen Wilson as Father Kent, Danny DeVito as historian Bruce, and Tiffany Hadish as Harriet, a psychic. They’re all highly likeable actors, and here they’re playing characters that are written to play to their strengths. However, some of the comedy does fall a little bit flat, and their purpose outside of comedy and giving exposition is limited.
That exposition is largely around the history of the house and the main ‘Hat Box’ ghost who is the movie’s antagonist. During the opening credits, actor Jared Leto gets a curiously specific credit of ‘Jared Leto as the Hat Box Ghost,’ and it becomes apparent why that is. For half of the runtime, his character is seen mostly in silhouette, but even when the evil does reveal itself there’s absolutely no way to distinguish it as being played by Leto. Depending on your views of the actor, this may be a pro or a con.
The definite downside, though, is that the face of the villain, made with obvious visual effects, doesn’t seem to have been based on the actor at all, which is something, in this writer’s opinion, that always lends a bit more realism to a VFX creation. This also applies to around half of Jamie Lee Curtis’ role. Leto’s voice is also warped into a deep, booming, stereotypically demonic tone that’s borderline campy. Sometimes it fits the film, at other times it seems out of place, and that’s likely a symptom of Haunted Mansion not quite meshing the silly with the spooky.
At its heart, though, the film has an emotional core that’s about grief and the difficulties of processing it. There are some really emotional moments that might manage to induce a tear or two, especially with Stanfield and Dillon’s great performances. That core makes up for a lot of the film’s blunders, and the spectacular production design, atmosphere, and creepier moments and hauntings take it the rest of the way. It’s far from perfect, but it’s true to the spirit of the ride and will easily satisfy those who, like me, start looking forward to Halloween in July.
Haunted Mansion is in cinemas on 11th August.
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