By RICKY J. DUARTE
Starring Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield, and Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by Justin Simien
Written by Katie Dippold
For many young people, and people young at heart, the ghostly inhabitants of Disney’s iconic THE HAUNTED MANSION attraction have cast a spell and instilled a sense of creepy wonder for decades. For many young, impressionable, budding horror fans, this ride has served as a perfect introduction to horror and general spookiness. After having been adapted to less-than-satisfactory reception in 2003’s THE HAUNTED MANSION, and delightfully spun off into the world of The Muppets in 2021’s MUPPETS HAUNTED MANSION, Disney has taken its third turn at bringing their haunted habitation into mostly successful fruition.
The film, penned by Katie Dippold (Ghostbusters), and directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair) tells the tale of single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon) who’ve just moved from the big bag city to the big bad bayou after purchasing a mysterious mansion in New Orleans with a sordid past. Upon realizing the house is already inhabited by a slew of Grim, Grinning Ghosts, Gabbie seeks the help of an exorcist (Owen Wilson), a historian (Danny DeVito), a medium (Tiffany Haddish), and a grief-stricken, widower tour guide (LaKeith Stanfield). This motley crew of macabre misfits unravels the mansion’s many secrets while trying to stop a particularly spiteful spook from claiming his one final soul. While Disney used to take bold swings at horror and occult iconography in such animations as Chernabog in Fantasia and The Headless Horseman in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, their approach to horror elements has felt noticeably neutered in the last decade or so. Fortunately, in HAUNTED MANSION, there’s plenty of it to go around.
Leading the way is Stanfield as Ben, who makes burdened and grief-stricken look good, and accomplishes the task of balancing his notably heavy scenes with some very subtle, yet hilarious, comedic moments. Speaking of comedic moments, Tiffany Haddish as the clairvoyant, Harriet, steals many a scene with her signature brand of hilarious line-delivery, and Danny DeVito proves he’s still got it, as many of the film’s best comedic moments revolve around the two. Owen Wilson does a just-fine job playing Owen Wilson dressed as a priest.
As Gabbie, Rosario Dawson plays playful yet sensible well, letting the more comedic actors do most of the funny-bone tickling. She does exactly what she needs to. Holding his own against this all-star cast of adults, Chase Dillon showcases many an emotional moment with surprising depth for someone so young. Jared Leto, as the infamous Hatbox Ghost, is unrecognizable in the motion-captured role, yet brings him to life – er, death – with truly creepy aplomb. A handful of fun celebrity cameos might have landed more successfully had they not been so publicly announced before the release of the film.
A special mention must be made of horror icon and scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota. The film utilizes her well, incorporating her backstory in a clever and unexpected way, and while JLC is clearly having a ball (crystal pun intended), her choice to bestow Leota with an unidentifiable dialect and a tone of voice just above a whisper for much of the movie comes off as confounding. Still, she’s a delight and handles the popular character with care and sincerity.
The film makes great, and, at times, ingenius, use of the iconic imagery from the ride. From waltzing specters to sentient suits of armor, the film’s attention to detail is certain to fill fans of the attraction with ghoulish delight. The endless hallway, in particular, is delightfully dizzying – floating candelabra and all – and the stretching portrait room gets a surprisingly thrilling interpretation! That being said, a couple of the ride’s most popular aspects are notably missing from the film, including the infamous wallpaper that watches you and the graveyard’s singing busts. Unfortunately, waiting through the end credits won’t satisfy how deeply they’re missed, as there’s no post-credits scene; not even so much as a “Hurry back…”
The film’s biggest strengths lie in its visuals. Flip-flopping between the waking realm and the ghost realm, the film’s creative teams have outdone themselves in their portrayal of the mansion and the expansion of its visual legacy. Director of photography Jeffrey Waldron stuns with gorgeous, innovative cinematography that immerses us into the mansion and makes incredible use of the space. Transitions into the ghost realm are breathtaking, also due to the efforts of production designer Darren Gilford and the teams working with him. A score by Kris Bowers cleverly incorporates the classic attraction’s theme, despite the gross underusage of the Buddy Baker’s classic tune, “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” Choices of color, camera angle, insane lighting, and costume all reflect both subtle and obvious nods to the attraction, all of which will go wildly appreciated by any Haunted Mansion superfan.
It’s clear that director Justin Simien wanted to get it right with this adaptation. Avoiding the mistakes of the disappointing 2003 version and focusing heavily on character-building and setting, here we are immersed into a suitable and rather heavy backstory for the mansion. Yet, for all its visual splendor, the film also utilizes themes of death and grief in surprising ways for a Disney film. While it’s true that the Disney (and Pixar) writers have leaned more heavily into real-life problems rather than witches and sorcerers as their villains lately, the care and raw honesty with which Haunted Mansion handles the loss of loved ones is notably bold and very successfully delivered. Death is a part of life. We’re all just strapped into our Doom Buggies and along for the ride.
HAUNTED MANSION is now playing in theaters.