‘Haunted Mansion’ Review: Welcome to the Remake, Foolish Mortals
There is a central question every haunted house movie must answer: Once the characters witness conclusive proof that said house is haunted, why do they stay? A creaky old home filled with ghosts is an unsettling prospect, certainly, but one with a pretty obvious solution: If the house is haunted, leave the house! In that way, bad haunted house movies always remind me of Jaws: The Revenge, in which a woman becomes convinced a shark is hunting her, and so in order to protect herself, she moves somewhere “safe” ... a Caribbean island. If she really want to get away from Jaws, she could have just moved to Iowa. The shark would have had to get really creative to eat her there.
So it must be acknowledged that the new Haunted Mansion, scripted by Katie Dippold, comes up with a very clever reason why its disparate group of heroes refuse to abandon this phantom manor filled with 999 grim grinning hosts. I won’t spoil how exactly, but the specifics are one of the 999 Easter eggs from the original Disneyland and Walt Disney World attractions strewn throughout nearly every character name, line of dialogue, story beat, and bit of production design that appears onscreen. By design, then, this Haunted Mansion feels very familiar. But at least that one plot device is pretty novel.
Haunted Mansion might also feel a little familiar because Disney already made this movie once before. During their early 2000s, they produced a whole wave of films inspired by Disneyland landmarks; this era gave us the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the bizarre Country Bears film, along with The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy. That version had impressive production design and an amusing supporting performance from Terence Stamp, and not much else. Without a substantial afterlife on home video, 2003’s The Haunted Mansion faded into obscurity, leading to this new take on the concept from Dippold and director Justin Simien. (The new film dropped the The from the title; it’s cleaner.)
Murphy’s version was about a hapless real estate agent who winds up at the titular location; 2023’s update follows a astrophysicist named Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) grieving the loss of his beloved wife. Years earlier, Ben developed a “quantum camera” capable of taking photographs of ghosts, but when Owen Wilson’s Father Kent finds him, Ben is lost at the bottom of a bottle. He’s stirred back to life by Kent’s offer: A substantial amount of money in exchange for his help investigating the nightly spectral visits at a home about an hour outside of New Orleans.
This house has recently come into the possession of a single mom and her young son (Rosario Dawson and Chase W. Dillon), who supposedly bought the place on Zillow. Whoever took the pictures for the online listing is either an incredible photographer or a master of Photoshop; with rotting old furniture, ghoulish light fixtures, and cobwebs covering every surface, the place already looks like a nightmare fixer upper before the first ghost shows up. This family couldn’t find any better place to live in Louisiana?!?
Apparently not. And now Dawson’s Gabbie is stuck with the place. That‘s how Ben and Father Kent get involved — along with an eccentric medium (Tiffany Haddish) and an even more eccentric college professor (Danny DeVito), all recruited to try to pinpoint the origins of the mansion’s infestation of phantoms. Searching the mansion — including a stretching room an an endless hallway filled with portraits whose eyes seem to follow the characters as they walk by — they discover the crystal ball of Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), who warns them about a mysterious apparition known only as the “Hatbox Ghost,“ a role credited to Jared Leto even though the character is fully CGI with a voice that, after an English accent, and all sorts of spookifying sound filters, sounds absolutely nothing like the actor.
The Hatbox Ghost and Madame Leota are both part of the lore of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, and Simien employs tons of other imagery from the durable Disney ride, gussied up for a multiplex audience with modern special effects. Few of these visuals have the charm of the original Haunted Mansion’s animatronic Pepper’s ghosts illusions, which bear a physical weight and presence that computerized images lack. The cast has plenty of charm, though, with Wilson landing most of the biggest laughs bouncing his laconic line deliveries off Stanfield’s grumpy energy. (Wilson, leading a prayer before a seance: “God ... give us a break.”)
While the human cast is heavy on comedians, the movie they’ve been placed in doesn’t shy away from the darkness inherent in a story about a building filled with the spirits of hundreds of dead people. There’s a fair amount of discussion about loss and heartache, and Stanfield delivers one monologue about his late wife that’s shockingly sad for what’s ostensibly a horror movie for kids. (In terms of scariness, the film is just frightening for kids to feel brave enduring the various jumps and chills without going so far into kiddie territory as to insult the intelligence or patience of the audience.)
If Haunted Mansion had been a little more invested in this bereavement theme, it might have risen to the level of something like Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which elevated an exercise in corporate brand refurbishment through sheer force of directorial vision. Simien’s film never quite gets there; it’s so possessed with recreating the ride’s details that it misses a bit of the ride’s spirit. A list of Easter eggs hidden in Haunted Mansion would be a waste of time; practically everything is an Easter egg, and none of them are hidden.
Still, Haunted Mansion does at least represent a small measure of progress for Hollywood. People always complain that studios remake beloved movies — which do not need improvement — when it would be wiser to remake a movie that contained the kernel of a good idea but failed in the execution. Haunted Mansion is absolutely a remake of a bad movie, and it does represent a slight improvement over the previous version.