11th Aug2023

‘Haunted Mansion (2023)’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Daniel Levy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto | Written by Katie Dippold | Directed by Justin Simien

Directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People), this disappointing comedy-horror is Disney’s second attempt at turning their popular theme park attraction into a movie franchise, following the disastrous 2003 Eddie Murphy vehicle. With a shorter, snappier running time, it could have been a fun ride – much like the attraction itself – but instead it’s a bloated, painfully dull and wildly uneven mess that quickly outstays its welcome, despite the efforts of its talented comic cast.

The film gets off to a bad start with a confusing jump from a meet-cute between astrophysicist Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) and haunted house tour guide (Charity Jordan) to a period some years later, where he is both an alcoholic and a haunted house tour guide operator himself, despite not believing in ghosts. It turns out that, in the intervening years, Ben has invented something called a Ghost Particle Detector (despite not believing, etc, etc), which is how he finds himself recruited into solving the mystery of the titular haunted mansion, alongside a rag-tag group of ghost-busters that includes medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), professor Bruce (Danny DeVito) and Father Kent (Owen Wilson), the priest that contacted him in the first place.

Also along for the ride, literally, are recently widowed single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her deadpan 9 year-old son Travis (Chase Dillon), who have just moved into the mansion in question. Together, the ghost-busters discover a connection to a creepy entity known as the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), who has sinister designs on their souls, or something.

Haunted Mansion‘s biggest problem is that it’s neither funny enough to work as a comedy nor scary enough to work as a horror. In addition, the supposedly thrilling set pieces drag on forever and are extremely tedious, relying too heavily on actors running around and screaming a lot.

However, the film’s issues don’t end there. The script – by Ghostbusters writer Katie Dippold – is all over the place and never lands on the right tone, veering wildly between the unfunny bickering that’s meant to pass for comedy to dull jump scares (the closest the film comes to horror) to misguided, supposedly emotional scenes that fall painfully flat. Even the handful of lines that do manage to raise a smile come about more as a result of the talented comic actors (usually Wilson or Haddish, though young Dillon gives them both a run for their money) coming up with an amusingly quirky line reading, rather than anything in the line itself.

Evidently taking notes from a slew of recent horror movies, Haunted Mansion‘s script also attempts a bit of depth by grafting on some oh-so-meaningful stuff about the grieving process, but it fails miserably because the characters are so thinly fleshed out. On a similar note, the house is full of ghosts, but we never get to know any of them (beyond Leto’s Big Bad Hatbox Ghost and a near-unrecognisable extended cameo from Jamie Lee Curtis as Madam Leota), so it becomes increasingly difficult to connect to the story.

On top of that, the effects work is surprisingly cheap-looking for a reportedly big-budget Disney blockbuster. If you squint a bit, you could choose to see the sub-par effects as an attempt to be retro, or maybe even a deliberate nod towards the Eddie Murphy version, but that seems entirely too generous.

Haunted Mansion does at least have a likeable cast, and the individual actors all do their best, but they never really connect as a group and it often feels like everyone filmed their scenes at separate times. There are also a number of cameos that are just straight-up baffling – for example, how much money did they throw at Winona Ryder for her weirdly flat and entirely lacklustre couple of minutes?

In fairness, if you’re a fan of the fairground ride itself, it’s likely you will get more of a kick out of the movie than total newcomers, because the filmmakers have gone out of their way to drench the thing in visual references and other Easter Eggs. However, everyone else will be left distinctly cold.

** 2/5

Haunted Mansion is in cinemas now.


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