REVIEW: Haunted Mansion (2023, dir. Justin Simien)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 123 mins

UK Distributor: Disney

WHO’S IN HAUNTED MANSION?

LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto, Hasan Minhaj, Dan Levy, Winona Ryder

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Justin Simien (director), Katie Dippold (writer), Jonathan Eirich and Dan Lin (producers), Kris Bowers (composer), Jeffrey Waldron (cinematographer), Phillip J. Bartell (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A group of paranormal experts investigate a haunted mansion…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON HAUNTED MANSION?

While it may seem odd and even rather reductive for Disney to release a movie like Haunted Mansion in late summer rather than the more appropriate Halloween window, what’s really happening is the company trying to repeat history. Thirty years prior, the studio released Hocus Pocus around the same time, and while it didn’t light up the box office, it soon become a cult classic that many people put on around the spookiest time of year. It’s a trick that Disney is clearly trying to emulate with their new take on the classic theme park attraction (following the Eddie Murphy-fronted one from 2003), and with Disney+ now within their arsenal they can potentially spread its spooky joy even further when it eventually comes to the streaming platform, initial theatrical box office disappointment be damned.

The problem, though, is that Hocus Pocus became the celebrated Halloween favourite that it is today because it was actually a fun and endearing movie with some occasional moments of genuine dread, whereas Haunted Mansion circa 2023 is a dull and dreary slog that is neither scary nor funny enough to last in anyone’s memories, let alone in time for Halloween.

Taking place in the city of New Orleans, the events of director Justin Simien’s film kick off when single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) moves into a rundown mansion with her young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), only to immediately be confronted by some of the many ghosts that appear to be occupying the place. Gabbie soon calls upon world-weary tour guide and former astrophysicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), priest and trained exorcist Father Kent (Owen Wilson), powerful psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), and college professor and historian Bruce (Danny DeVito) to help her investigate the haunted mansion and its numerous spirits, who latch onto and haunt anyone who steps inside. Together, the unlikely team of supernatural combatants seek to rid the place of its spooky residents, as well as find out why they are even around in the first place.

Much like the actual Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, sitting through this movie is a tedious and slow-moving experience, with not even the gothic visuals doing much to impress, and leaves you just wanting to explore any other part of the Magic Kingdom instead. In fairness to Simien, he does capture a lot of the ride’s darkly lit aesthetic as well as some of its more outstanding features, but the script by Katie Dippold undercuts a lot of the intended atmosphere with juvenile gags and needlessly tangled plotting that only serve to make this two-hour movie feel even longer than it already is. The humour is just off, rarely ever landing a serious chuckle with its many scenes of the actors just rambling, while there’s hardly an opportunity taken to actually scare the audience with visuals that aren’t coated in excessive CGI. Look, Disney was never going to make this a full-on horror movie, as it’s just not part of their family-friendly brand, but it could have at least tried to be a bit edgier or maybe even put more effort into making this script and its often groan-worthy dialogue more fun.

Very few of the main characters also leave an impression, with many of them just being extended versions of the actors playing them: Owen Wilson and Tiffany Haddish aren’t really playing roles here, they’re just playing themselves under heavier-than-normal costumes, and that makes it hard to really see them as different people. Others like Rosario Dawson and Jamie Lee Curtis, as the crystal ball-entrapped Madame Leota from the original ride, are given next to nothing in one-note parts that under-utilise their acting skillsets. The only actor to really make something out of the thin material is LaKeith Stanfield, who delivers a strong lead turn with genuinely emotional scenes that showcase further how great a talent he actually is, and you honestly feel bad that a performance on this level is being wasted on a script that he is far too good for, along with many of his co-stars.

It fails to be either scary or funny, both of which are things that even the 2003 version captured to some degree, and that one’s not a particularly good movie either (though, like Hocus Pocus, it does seem to have had a slight audience re-evaluation in the years since). Even having said that, I think I’d still rather rewatch that previous version of Haunted Mansion over this one, because there was a bit more ambition in the effects and filmmaking, not to mention I remember thinking those singing busts were kind of funny, which is still more than I laughed here, where despite the $150 million budget it still has scenes that are shot and acted like a cheap Tyler Perry movie.

It’s just a lot of wasted potential, undermined by corporate synergy that makes it feel, appropriately enough, soulless. Don’t count on it being the next Hocus Pocus any time soon.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Haunted Mansion is a hugely underwhelming adaptation of Disney’s theme park attraction, undermined by a script that’s free of laughs and scares, wasteful performances (except from a committed LaKeith Stanfield), and questionable filmmaking practises that make even the similarly lacklustre 2003 version look dignified.

Haunted Mansion is now showing in cinemas nationwide

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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