Disney’s HAUNTED MANSION is Grim, and will Leave you Grinning with its Ghostly Humor!

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Haunted Mansion has Disney once again adapting the beloved dark ride to the silver screen nearly two decades after the previous endeavor, which featured Eddie Murphy who was fresh off the box office career killer that was The Adventures of Pluto Nash. While that Haunted Mansion wasn’t completely terrible (well… maybe it was), it failed its namesake by focusing more on its star and his on screen family’s hijinks rather than the Mansion and its rich mythology, which has its own very dedicated sect of Disney fandom, myself included. When a new film was announced, from Justin Simien, the director of Dear White People and Bad Hair, with a script from Katie Dippold the writer of Heat and in particular the 2016 Ghostbusters I was curious to see if that pair could crack the ride this time around.  

While the film is more an ensemble chamber piece, our thruway is LaKeith Stanfield’s Ben Matthias, who was once an astrophysicist and now drunkenly conducts ghost tours in New Orleans, even though he doesn’t believe in ghosts. Ben is soon recruited by “Father” Kent (Owen Wilson) to investigate the Mansion, because he once invented a camera that can photograph the “spirit particle”, theoretically what ghosts SHOULD be made of. The only problem is, he’s never been able to find a real ghost to prove his camera actually works. When Ben arrives at the mansion he meets along with a host of ghosts, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), a desperate mother and her eccentric son (Chase Dillon) who are looking to rid their house of the mischievous spirits so they can open a bed and breakfast. From there the layers of the story are simply pulled away as we discover one Hatbox Ghost in particular is to blame for keeping the ghosts in the mansion, hoping to collect 1000 souls. 

First and foremost the film adapts the rich and morose mythology of the mansion, finely turning it and adapting it for the silver screen. Fans of the ride will definitely be pleased at how Justin Simien infuses the story with a litany of ride specific easter eggs and call backs, while not getting lost in the weeds of nostalgia as these things tend to do. The story here overall works rather well at tapping all the stories and haunted ephemera of the ride that it encapsulates and coherently bringing them together, while adding an original and rather charming subtext about grief and loss. I mean this after all is a film about ghosts and death, and thankfully those questions are not lost on Justin Simien or Katie Dippold, who use that angle to give the film its dark beating heart as we discover how that plays into the Hatbox Ghost’s ghastly MO. 

As a horror guy, I was really surprised at just how hard they went with the scares, I mean take away the comedic ensemble of you’d have a much bleaker film. That’s something the 2003 version also lacked, and its at its core of the Mansion’s story is horror one, which always used its exaggerated gallows humor to offset the darker subject matter making it somewhat family friendly. I think they hit that mix of tones just right here. While the film no doubt has the scares, thanks to its ensemble and it definitely has the laughs. Accompanying LaKeith and Dawson’s rather delightfully engaging performances are Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Danny DeVito who do a great job at flexing their comedic chops and playing off one another injecting some great character moments into this camber piece ghost story. It’s that human dynamic under spiritual duress, and the comedy it inspires that really made this take on the story work for me. 

Haunted Mansion will probably go down as one of my biggest surprises this summer. It got so much right with its approach, really capturing the dark ride vibe while still turning in a story that was as family friendly as you could get given the circumstances. While some hardcore fans may complain, as they tend to do, that it’s not the Guillermo del Toro version Disney once flirted with. If you ask me that film was already made and it was called Crimson Peak and it’s great, get over it, but it’s not a Disney film. That comes with that compromise of vision and tone you get when you make that Faustian pact with the Mouse. It’s how you can maneuver within that, which shows a director’s true strengths and I think Justin Simien has accomplished just that with a take that definitely deals out that Disney MO with its broad comedy strokes offsetting some surprisingly the dark and emotional story beats. So definitely check this out, because there’s always room for one more at the Haunted Mansion.

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