My first encounter with Disney World’s Haunted Mansion in Orlando, Florida, left an indelible mark on my memory. From the eerie atmosphere while waiting in line, complete with a cemetery, to the meticulously crafted storyline, I instantly fell in love with the immersive ghostly thrills. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for the 2003 film “The Haunted Mansion,” starring Eddie Murphy. While it retained some of the fun and whimsy, the heart of the movie felt lifeless. Now, after two decades, Disney has decided to breathe new life into their iconic theme park attraction with a more faithful adaptation.
Director Justin Simien, known for Hulu’s “Bad Hair,” might seem like an unconventional choice, but his grasp of the campy horror tone infuses the film with a distinct and chaotic energy. The witty script by Katie Dippold (“The Heat,” “Ghostbusters” 2016) provides an abundance of clever one-liners, delivered by an impressive ensemble cast including Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Lakeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Jared Leto, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Set against the vibrant backdrop of New Orleans, “Haunted Mansion” holds onto its audience with a tight grip.
Gabbie (Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), move into a grand mansion in the heart of New Orleans. As expected, they quickly realize, through flickering lights, eerie shadows, and moving armor, that the house may be haunted. Unlike characters in most haunted house tales, they wisely decide to leave the premises in the face of supernatural occurrences. However, ghosts seem determined to attach themselves to Gabbie and Travis, showing that escaping the house won’t save them if the undead have their sights set. Gabbie’s predicament sets off a chain reaction, drawing in others she hopes can help free her from the relentless ghostly presence.
Ben (Stanfield), a former astrophysicist grieving the loss of his beloved Alyssa (Charity Jordan), has settled into a mundane life running historical walking tours while staunchly denying the existence of ghosts. However, a generous offer of $2,000 convinces him to visit the mysterious mansion and use his expertise in spirit photography. Father Kent (Wilson) reveals that an unsuccessful exorcism has already been attempted on the house but fails to disclose that any visitor becomes a target for the ghosts. Kent assists Ben in recruiting others to assist in ridding the home of its unwelcome spectral guests, including Tulane professor Bruce (DeVito), known for his obscure book on haunted Louisiana mansions, and the psychic Harriet (Haddish), who’s been reading fortunes at bar mitzvahs.
Jared Leto makes a notable appearance as the menacing Hatbox Ghost, nearly unrecognizable in the role. Haddish and DeVito undoubtedly steal the show, with both embracing physical comedy, particularly DeVito. Their characters are swiftly expelled from the house upon entering, leading to one of the film’s standout scenes. A hilarious moment, often featured in trailers, involves Bruce and Ben providing a detailed description of a ghost for a sketch artist and left me laughing heartily. Although Jamie Lee Curtis, playing Madame Leota, doesn’t appear until midway through the film, she’s mostly confined to a CGI head within a crystal ball. Leota delivers exposition and warns of the Hatbox Ghost’s sinister plan to steal 1,000 souls, a nod to the amusement park ride. Despite having the least screen time among the main cast, Oscar-winner Curtis makes every moment onscreen count.
Where “Haunted Mansion” truly shines is in its balance of humor, horror, and heart. Ben’s journey out of his depression, aided by Gabbie and Travis, resonates throughout the film, making the humor feel earned through the characters’ genuine vulnerabilities. Harriet introduces the concept of “ghost winks,” signs from loved ones in the real world, a poignant touch that struck a chord with me. It’s clear that this eclectic group of characters has experienced love and loss, making their connections genuine. Travis and Ben, in particular, are identified as the most vulnerable to the Hatbox Ghost’s tricks, making them the emotional core of “Haunted Mansion.”
The film proudly wears its inspirations as badges of honor rather than imitating them poorly. The eerie underworld may remind viewers of “The Further” from the “Insidious” franchise, and Alistair Crump’s captivating story bears a resemblance to the horror elements of the 1999 film “The Haunting” (or any adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House”). It’s unfortunate that Disney didn’t learn from the past, as “Haunted Mansion” follows in the footsteps of “Hocus Pocus,” another highly entertaining Halloween-themed movie that was released in the wrong season. Despite its initial box office struggles, “Haunted Mansion” will delight Disney enthusiasts and families seeking a slightly darker Halloween treat.