The new Haunted Mansion reboot reportedly costs nearly US$160 million and yet, director Justin Simien could only muster a sporadically entertaining, effect-laden supernatural horror-comedy showcase. The movie is, of course, based on Disney’s popular theme park attraction of the same name. And it isn’t the first time the studio attempted to make a movie out of it. Going back 20 years ago, there was a Haunted Mansion movie starring Eddie Murphy and directed by Ron Minkoff of the first two Stuart Little fame. It tried and failed and I hate to say this: the 2023 reboot suffers the same fate as well.
It does, however, get off to a promising start during the pre-credits sequence. The story begins with astrophysicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), who engages in a meet-cute scenario with paranormal tour guide Alyssa (Charity Jordan). But it was a distant past that his current life crumbled down. He spends his time drinking and is now going through the motions working as a paranormal tour guide but doesn’t believe in ghosts and all things supernatural.
Then, one day, he is about to get his second chance to do something meaningful again when a priest named Father Kent (Owen Wilson) shows up at his front door. Apparently, there’s a woman — a single mother, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) with a tween son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon) — who is looking to hire some experts to exorcise the spirits in her titular mansion. Ben used to have a unique camera capable of capturing the image of a ghost and since he gets to pay a handsome sum to do so, he agrees to help her.
Long story short, things don’t go smoothly as planned. This prompted Ben and Father Kent to enlist the help of a psychic, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and historian Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) so they can band together to cast out the spirits.
Earlier in the movie, Simien shows some decent spooky fun when Gabbie and her son first encountered the spirits in their mansion. But the fun is simply few and far between. Subsequent sequences like the surrealistic moments of rotating walls and floors and the appearance of a relentless ghost bride are worthwhile. And frankly, I wish the director could have emphasised more on this. Besides, this is based on a theme park attraction after all.
But Simien and screenwriter Katie Dippold of — God helps us all… the Ghostbusters: Answer the Call reboot nobody asked for — wanted to delve deeper into the story beyond its mere “few characters trapped in the haunted house” angle. The story incorporates downbeat themes like grief and despair, notably from Ben’s arc. Unfortunately, instead of something profound or affecting, the emotions feel more manufactured than respectfully earned. It’s not like LaKeith Stanfield doesn’t commit to his role of a sullen and reluctant protagonist. It’s just that his character is underwritten. The same also goes for the rest of what could have been a promising cast including Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish and Danny DeVito. Not even the supporting appearances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto, whose respective roles as Madame Leota and the Hatbox Ghost can do much to salvage the mess.
Haunted Mansion is also unnecessarily overlong with detours (yes, the movie sees the otherwise trapped characters leaving the mansion on and off) and run-of-the-mill backstories. The laughs are almost nowhere to be found and the stakes are shockingly low, even for a family-friendly horror comedy. By the time the movie slogs its way to the underwhelming third act, I barely care about the fate of any of the characters here. Maybe the eponymous theme park attraction should remain as it is, especially given the second consecutive failure after the 2003 debacle.