Twenty years after Eddie Murphy flailed his way through The Haunted Mansion, Disney performs an IP double-dip with Haunted Mansion, yet another mirthless and fright-free film based on their popular theme park attraction. It may abbreviate its predecessor’s title, but Haunted Mansion (in theaters July 28) is just as busy, corny, and predictable as its 2003 iteration—as well as destined to swiftly pass into the cinematic afterlife that is both convenience store bargain bins and cluttered streaming platform libraries.
One week after Barbie demonstrated that established properties can be cleverly translated to the screen when auteurs take bold chances with their material, Haunted Mansion proves that such inspired efforts remain anomalies. Written by Katie Dippold with the same humorlessness as her 2016 Ghostbusters script, Justin Simien’s horror-comedy bears no plot relation to its ancestor, which would be welcome news if not for the fact that the story it concocts is equally groan-worthy.
In a New Orleans whose inimitable personality only shines through during the opening credits, Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) has thrown away his promising quantum mechanics career—he coulda been an Oppenheimer!—in the wake of his wife Alyssa’s (Charity Jordan) death. When not drowning his sorrows at the bar, he’s giving the city tour that Alyssa once ran, as well as grumbling at anyone who tries to interact with him. What he’s not doing, however, is taking tourists to see ghosts, since as a man of science, he’s convinced that they don’t exist.
Situating a skeptic at the center of its tale is merely the first of Haunted Mansion’s numerous conventional elements. Though content to be bitter and alone, Ben is coaxed out of his downtown house by Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest who finds him because—before he gave up on physics—Ben had developed a spectral-photography camera that could take snapshots of spirits (by capturing their “ghost particles” via its “quantum lens”).
This is relevant because Kent has been commissioned by mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) to help her and her 9-year-old son Travis (Chase Dillon) deal with a mansion that’s infested with ghouls. Ben naturally wants nothing to do with this. However, he does like the large cash sum being offered to go along with this nonsense, and thus he inspects the abode and pockets his fee without putting any effort into taking Gabbie or Travis’ bump-in-the-night claims seriously.
Haunted Mansion barely bothers explaining why Gabbie and Travis want to live in this enormous Greek Revival residence, what with its stereotypically spooky suits of armor, cobwebs, candelabras, secret passages and creepy portraits of prior inhabitants; the best it can devise is a tossed off comment about Gabbie discovering the place on Zillow. Sketchy doesn’t begin to describe the film’s set-up, or Gabbie for that matter, who’s such a cipher that it’s astonishing Dawson agreed to the thankless role.
If you’re thinking that Gabbie and Travis (who’s a dorky outcast who misses his MIA dad) might be a good surrogate family for the bereaved Ben, then you’re paying attention, which is more than can be said about Stanfield, who comes across as only moderately invested in these shenanigans, his performance far more muted than the cartoon proceedings require.
Stanfield goes through the motions with a dutifulness that often borders on begrudging, while his castmates chew heavily on whatever musty scenery is available. Wilson does the same wisecracking schtick he’s been perfecting since before he co-starred in another dreary haunted house venture, Jan de Bont’s 1999 The Haunting. Tiffany Haddish (as a brash medium) and Danny DeVito (as a local professor) similarly deliver variations on their own stock-and-trade routines. Eventually, Jamie Lee Curtis, Winona Ryder, Dan Levy, and Hasan Minhaj all collect a paycheck, er, I mean, lend their talents the film, but they’re merely secondary cogs in this carnivalesque machine, more or less trampled by parades of CGI specters and strange phenomena—Astral projection! Screaming phantoms! Otherworldly portals!—that are less enchanting than the Disney World ride’s mannequins.
Haunted Mansion’s motley characters are prevented from escaping their circumstances by poltergeists that follow them wherever they flee. As a result, they’re compelled to figure out a way to free the ghosts by deducing the reasons for their continuing mansion habitation. The answer, it turns out, involves the Hat-Box Ghost, a limping apparition in a cloak and top-hat who carries his head around in a hat box. This villain is supposedly played by Jared Leto, yet aside from a couple of old-timey portraits, the Oscar-winner never appears on-screen; the Hat-Box Ghost is a totally computer-generated creation, and a rather pedestrian one at that, apt to give nightmares to only the youngest of viewers. The under-ten crowd is this snoozefest’s clear demographic, although even they’ll have a hard time finding much to cower or cackle about here.
Simien includes product-placement shout-outs to Amazon, CVS, and Costco, and he drenches everything in that murky blue-black haze that allows for visibility at night but looks terrible. His creature designs are bland, and so is the film’s wit; stuck with one-liners that are moldier than the glowing cadavers roaming the mansion’s halls, the cast compensates by energetically mugging. Haunted Mansion is a hectic affair that feels like it’s running in place, as its series of late-night encounters, possessions, and trips to the spirit world are mere noisy filler. Ben’s heroism is never in doubt, nor is anyone’s mortal safety, because genuinely scaring kids would work at cross-purposes with the studio’s desire to make this a feature-length advertisement for its parks. No matter its eerie trappings, the company’s latest is all about enticing, not unnerving.
As evidenced by its raft of live-action remakes of animated classics (and endless franchise sequels), Disney prioritizes repetition over invention, and despite its superficially novel story, Haunted Mansion is further confirmation of its belief that giving audiences what they already know, and expect, is a safer investment than taking a swing with something new. The film may modestly charm a few adolescents, but it won’t thrill them, and they—and everyone else—can rest assured that in another two decades, it’ll be reimagined again, probably with the same middling degree of innovation.
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