Haunted Mansion (2023)

When it comes to the house of mouse, there are no shortcomings of recognizable IP that can be adapted into a different medium. For example a film version – One of which has become a global blockbusting franchise led by an eccentric ship captain making a living as a pirate in the seas of the Caribbean. Another ride that has tested the waters of the big screen is the spooky Haunted Mansion. For 53 years, the ride has operated consistently across 5 parks and is a staple for park goers to experience the horrors that await them down each corridor.

Getting in the ‘Doom Buggie’ is the easy part, the rest of the methodically slow-moving ride is sure to create a scare or 2 given its dense mythology that has since grown and evolved as the decades pass. For the film version, I mean the 2023 version, not the 2003 Eddie Murphy starring one,  director Justin Simien off a screenplay written by Katie Dippold recreate the recognizable ride with non-stop thrills but Dippold gives a much needed layer or 2 of emotion to the inhabitants stuck in the grasp of the 999 other trapped souls’ tormentor.

But during the 123 minute runtime, the sensation of being on the ride is not the main attraction – the ride’s purpose is mainly for providing the setting for this semi haunted disappointing story.

Set in New Orleans, where death is celebrated just as much as life is and death is not a final destination as its made to be, Haunted Mansion opens on and introduces us to genius astrophysicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), inventing a camera to see beyond our reality on New Year’s eve where he meets Alyssa (Charity Jordan). Cut to sometime later and Simien drops us into a different world, one where Ben is now a paranormal tour guide around the bustling city. Throughout a tour, we follow a car driven by Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) on their way to their new home, found on Zillow and most likely move in ready and furnished.

Not even 5 minutes after they arrive at their new home, Gabbie and Travis are greeted with paranormal activity – a house full of trapped spirits, one of them being a full suit of armor appearing out of thin air. Maybe a vanilla candle by Yankee will warm the place up. “Will it though?” Travis asks skeptically. And the kid’s instincts prove right. As Gabbie and Travis soon learn, simply leaving the house won’t do the trick which is where Ben comes back into the picture. Gabbie hires Father Kent (Owen Wilson) to exercise the house who hires Ben to snap a few photos of any activity and soon both men became trapped by the mansion.

As plots go, there’s not much to write home about nor is it a difficult narrative to follow. It is Disney which is automatically geared to a younger viewer. And for that younger viewer, there are plenty of laughs to be passed around from the talented ensemble cast. For the scare factor, Dippold offers the bare minimum when jumps are concerned – some of which can be seen a hallway away. The effects department create an abundance of well-done haunting designs that won’t cause any nightmares. Yet what will wind up being the main draw for the unexpected stay in the grandiose living room with an abundance of couches (and everyone snoring peacefully) are the themes Dippold attaches to her characters. Particularly Ben and Travis.

Over the course of the film, both characters form a connection through grief. We learn truths about Ben and Travis that bring them together, united with the same emotion. Though grief can present itself differently in any given person, Ben and Travis’s grief stems from a similar situation. And when the film uses grief to drive their stories forward, Haunted Mansion becomes an unexpected but pleasantly surprising ride.

Aside from the cast that includes performances by the comedic Danny DeVito as a historian and professor Bruce Davis and Tiffany Haddish as a medium named Harriet, grief and how it affects us and manipulates us to act unnaturally is the backbone of this film. It’s almost as unnatural as the 999 trapped lives that cannot be in peace thanks to the villainous Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto). Throughout the film, the group are thrust into a journey to banish the Hatbox Ghost from the house before he collects 1,000 souls and can be set free from the mansion.

All he needs is one soul and he has his sunken raccoon eyes set on 2 people.

With his performance as Ben, LaKeith Stanfield continuously proves he’s a leading talent. From his days of being a trio on Atlanta to Get Out, Sorry to Bother You and beyond, Stanfield’s value is skyrocketing. Several times Stanfield becomes the emotional center of gravity, giving resounding performance through his expressive eyes only to be outdone by Chase W. Dillon. Out of the entire cast, Dillon gives the best effort against the talent he shares the screen with. Bringing depth to his role thanks to Dippold’s writing of the character, Travis and by extension Dillion is further proof that kids are well equipped to handle as much emotionally as adults and do so with resilience and bravery.

When it comes to capturing the spirit of the ride, Simien and cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron utilize a found footage style for moving around the mansion thus creating the thrill of an unpredictable moving house. Twists and turns are around every corner with the use of forced perspective being the centerpiece for creating these effects. For what it amounts to, Haunted Mansion provides a serviceable experience with key high points centering around grief. There’s plenty to enjoy from this light-hearted fare for newcomers and fans of the famed spooky ride but don’t expect new ground to be broken.

Screenplay By: Katie Dippold

Directed By: Justin Simien

Music By: Kris Bowers

Cinematography: Jeffrey Waldron

Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto, Chase W. Dillon

Edited By: Phillip J. Bartell

Release Date: July 28, 2023

Running Time: 2 Hours 3 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 41%

Based On: The Haunted Mansion by Walt Disney

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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