A film review by Craig J. Koban October 30, 2023


2023, PG-13, 123 mins.

Rosario Dawson as Gabbie  /  Chase W. Dillon as Travis  /  LaKeith Stanfield as Ben Matthias  /  Owen Wilson as Father Kent  /  Tiffany Haddish as Harriet  /  Danny DeVito as Bruce Davis  /  Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota  /  Winona Ryder as Pat  /  Jared Leto as Crump / Hatbox

Directed by Justin Simien  /  Written by Katie Dippold

Through every single minute of watching the supernatural horror comedy HAUNTED MANSION, I found myself constantly asking one simple question: 

How many times does Disney feel the need to go back to the well for creative inspiration? 

If you had feelings of deju vu while watching the House of Mouse's lastest endeavor, then you're clearly not alone.  

Yes, this is not the first time that the studio has looked to one of their theme park attractions for material to filter to the silver screen.  Sometimes they work famously (as was the case with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN), whereas other times they didn't (like the recent JUNGLE CRUISE).  But now there's - yes - HAUNTED MANSION, which has already seen the cinematic light of day with the largely forgotten 2003 film adaptation starring Eddie Murphy.  

That film is an interesting case study, seeing as it opened in the same year as the critically and audience respected PIRATES franchise introductory installment.  Flash-forward two decades and now Disney has opted to give HAUNTED MANSION one more kick at the can and hoping that audience's will now be attracted to this property (they're also hoping that attention spans don't go back that far).  I could talk endlessly about how Disney has pilfered from their theme park rides - and recently, their own classic animated film catalogue - for cash grabbing live action retrofits, but I'll try not to.  

But, again, is this take two adaptation worthwhile?  

The short answer is...meh...no.  

Despite featuring a respectable ensemble cast, some nice diversity as a Black-led production, and a few good set-pieces, HAUNTED MANSION: TAKE TWO is more of an overly long, bland, and forgettable two hour plus commercial for the Disney ride than a fully realized and entertaining film.

Gabbie (Rasario Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), have just moved into an old, rickety, and genuinely spooky looking Louisiana mansion that they have just inherited.  It's the kind of place that - in real life and upon first inspection on the outside - would lead any prospective home owner to turn, walk away, and utter "nope!"  Without no time whatsoever, mother and son discover that this antique home is very much haunted by multiple spirits.  Realizing that she's going to need the aid of paranormal investigators to get to the bottom of this, Gabbie desperately seeks out Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), who works as a ghost tour guide of sorts for paying patrons (he also has a tricked out camera that's capable of capturing just about any spirit).  Ben's heart is not really into this assignment (outside of a payday), seeing as he's still grieving over losing the love of his life and has developed supreme doubts about the validity of ghosts in general.  When he's unable (or unwilling) to crack this ghastly case, more experts convene on the haunted mansion, like a kooky historian, Bruce (Danny DeVito), a fast talking priest, Ken (Owen Wilson), and a medium, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish).  As they all pool their respective resources together, new details start to emerge about the previous owners of the home.  Complicating everything is the appearance of the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto, completely unrecognizable and buried under his CG character), who's plotting something dialogical for anyone that decides to remain on the premises.     



There are a kernel of a few good ideas at the heart of this new HAUNTED MANSION, despite it being made up of the building blocks of an old ride and many old conventions of haunted house fiction.  Much of this ties into the character of Ben, who's compellingly a ghost skeptic, but has the technology to photograph ghosts and is now being called upon to investigate the veracity of spirits infesting Gabbie's newly acquired home.  He's still in a deep state of mourning over the death of his wife in a hellish car accident.  Part of his ghost tour job is to search for signs - any sign - that the spirit of his wife is lingering around somewhere, but when he continually finds no evidence of this, he becomes riddled with doubt.   Stanfield has been so good in so many recent film roles (SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, THE HARDER THEY FALL, and JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH) and he arguably gives HAUNTED MANSION's best and most grounded performance as his depressed ghost seeker looking to overcome his past trauma.  It's also interesting that he's in a highly vulnerable state while looking around the mansion for signs of the otherworldly.  He's pretty sure that ghosts just don't exist, but when weird occurrences get constantly thrust at him and everyone else at the mansion, he finds it hard to look away with disbelief anymore.

Unfortunately, for as good as Stanfield is in the film, everyone else around him seems like they're acting in a whole different kind of wacky production, which leads to some tonal unevenness throughout.  HAUNTED MANSION wants us to emotionally latch onto Ben, his crisis of conscience, and how he's trying to process death and loss, but it also wants us to laugh uproariously at the weird menagerie of other eccentric characters assembled and all of the offbeat shenanigans.  HAUNTED MANSION can easily be charged with adopting the MCU model for storytelling: For every single would-be dramatically potent moment, quickly undermine it with a physical sight gag, joke, snarky wisecrack, and so forth.  I think this creative formula doesn't serve this film well.  The original GHOSTBUSTERS, for example, was also a spooky comedy, but its characters were average Joes that weren't going out of their way to mug the camera for laughs.  That, and Ivan Reitman's 1984 film mixed scares and humor with real fluidity.  HAUNTED MANSION is not consistently funny, nor is it a thoroughly unnerving watch either.  And a horror-comedy without laughs or scares with a watch-checking two hour-plus runtime added in makes for a very tedious watch.   

And, man, the cast here outside of Stanfield is egregiously squandered.  Poor Rosario Dawson suffers the most.  Gabbie starts off HAUNTED MANSION as one of the main characters and - you'd think - an integral aspect of the story moving forward, but then the film segues more to the budding relationship between Ben and her son, leading to her being brushed aside and with seemingly nothing to do.  The other players fare no better.  It's kind of scandalous how unfunny Wilson, DeVito, and Haddish are in this film, which is not so much a reflection on them as it is the uninspired script that they were given to work with.  In particular, Wilson may be the only one here that seems to understand the kind of weird film he's in, playing a priest that may or may not be on the level about his profession (to be honest, I think there's a whole other kind of compelling comedy to be had out of a priest that's actually a con man, but impersonates a man of the cloth to score quick pay days for exorcisms at haunted houses).  I forgot to mention Jamie Lee Curtis, who also appears (well, in floating head in a crystal ball form) as Madame Leota, who seems to be reveling in joyously hamming it up.  Ultra method actor Jared Leto is fine here, but his ghost is more about spiffy VFX than it is about the thespian behind it.

Then there is the VFX, which are decidedly so-so throughout the production.  I appreciated the look and feel that director Justin Simien aims for here, and some of the sequences involving halls and ceilings that are never-ending, creepy hidden rooms and catacombs, and characters fleeing away from the supernatural madness that tries to suffocate them are fun and mildly exciting in their own ways.  I also applaud that the ghosts in HAUNTED MANSION have a sense of lively color to them and are not just morosely monochromatic beings (having said that, Hatbox Ghost himself is not an entirely inspired creation and seems to lack a distinct visual edge).  More often than not, though, Simien's film gets too bogged down with simply too much going on over the course of its bloated 122 minutes.  When it boils right down to it, there are too many characters, too many disinteresting or malnourished subplots, and simply not enough focus in HAUNTED MANSION to make for an effectively chilling and humorous picture.     

I've read that Guillermo del Toro was once interested in writing and producing this second adaptation.  Now that would have been something.  What we're left with is just another lifeless piece of lazy and half-hearted Disney brand expansion.  And who is this film even for?  Fans of the original ride?  Scary film fans?  Comedy film fans?  Adults?  Children?  I dunno.  HAUNTED MANSION, as alluded to, lacks hearty guffaws and frightening tension and is arguably too dark in parts for kids (but goofy enough to keep them in mild interest), but it's also too long and dull for most adults to enjoy sitting through.  Will Disney be so - ahem! - possessed with making this property a qualitative and box office hit that they'll attempt a third adaptation in, say, 2043?  

If they do, call in multiple priests to pray for their misguided souls. 

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