We were always getting another Haunted Mansion movie. The 2003 attempt was simply too damned embarrassing and the source material is simply too damned good. Which makes it all the more disappointing that after 20 years of anticipation — and a teased attempt from Guillermo del Toro that was always too good for this world — Haunted Mansion (2023) has already been written off as a critical and commercial flop.
What happened? Well, I’m sure the studios would love to find some way of blaming the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes. Personally, I’d love to find some way of blaming Jared Leto. (Seriously, why in the nine hells does that tumor keep getting work?) But the most likely reason is that Disney got the bright idea to get those big summer blockbuster dollars in theaters, and then make those Halloween dollars with home video and Disney+. An idea that might’ve worked if that summer release wasn’t squarely in the Barbieheimer splash zone.
So how’s the movie itself? Well, I’d put it in the same class as Mortal Kombat (2021): Not perfect, but close enough that I’d be up for a sequel if they get someone else to write it.
The plot this time begins with Gabbie and her young son Travis, respectively played by Rosario Dawson and Chase W. Dillon. They move into Gracey Manor so Gabbie can turn the place into a bed&breakfast, only to find the place is haunted to the rafters. What’s worse, the ghosts have a way of following them around, haunting them until they come back to the mansion.
Enter our protagonist, Ben Matthias, played by LaKeith Stanfield. Once a genius astrophysicist with a specialty in photographing dark matter, Ben was somehow capable of inventing a camera that could purportedly photograph ghosts. This invention got him laughed out of the scientific community, for some reason. Things got even worse when his wife (Alyssa, played by Charity Jordan) passed away in a tragic car accident, so he honors her memory by maintaining her business giving tours of famous haunted spots in New Orleans. Trouble is, Ben is such a jaded heartbroken skeptic that he openly hates his tourist clients, hosts his tours while visibly hung over, and vocally insists that no matter what the tourists may want to believe, ghosts don’t really exist.
Ben gets roped in by Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest called to help Gabby and Travis with the hauntings at Gracey Manor. They are eventually joined by the psychic medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and the eccentric history professor Bruce (Danny DeVito). Hilarity ensues.
There’s a lot to like about this movie. The production design is fantastic, using imagery from the ride in satisfying ways. Kris Bowers turns in an elegant score that makes good use of the original music. Such established mainstay characters as William Gracey (J.R. Adduci), Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), and the Hatbox Ghost (Why even cast Jared Leto when he’s covered in CGI the whole time anyway?!), and all the other happy haunts of Gracey Manor are expertly folded into a clever new backstory for the Mansion.
I appreciate how the film brings up themes of coping with grief and addressing mortality. I love how the film is creepy and scary in a way that’s fun for all ages. Stanfield, Dawson, and Dillon are all acting their asses off to try and sell this movie.
But the comedy sucks.
To start with, the film was written by Kate Dippold. The same screenwriter who already tried and failed at writing a balanced horror/comedy with the unfortunate Ghostbusters (2016) misfire. Did they think she’d do any better of a job without Paul Feig directing? Because I could understand that line of thinking, but it apparently wasn’t the case.
As with Ghostbusters (2016), the comedy and horror are both way too broad. I’ll grant that the outlandish approach to horror is a better fit for this particular source material, and the noted lack of gross-out horror/comedy is a definite improvement. But when the over-the-top horror moments fail to contrast with the over-the-top comedy, the end result gets way too loud and annoying way too quickly.
It certainly doesn’t help that we’ve got Wilson, DeVito, and Haddish playing their established comedic personas full-tilt while Stanfield, Dawson, and Dillon are trying so hard to play actual characters. Much as I appreciate the ensemble approach instead of putting everything on the shoulders of a single washed-up comedian, the ensemble is irreparably broken when half the cast is acting like they’re in a different movie entirely.
Furthermore, there are so many times when one or more of our leads goes through this huge dramatic milestone in their development as a character, only for one of the clowns to ruin it by loudly barging in. Then again, the third act is so uneven that we’ve got Ben going through this pivotal moment of acceptance, only for that character development to be completely undone at a moment’s notice so we can get some huge climactic moment. Fucking what?
Even the cameo appearances don’t make any sense. Sure, I get Hasan Minhaj riffing with Stanfield and DeVito as a police sketch artist, that was fun. But Dan Levy showing up for ten seconds? Winona Ryder making an uncredited guest appearance? Just freaking why?! Consider that the “Muppets Haunted Mansion” special got Kim Irvine for a cameo, and this production couldn’t get a single cameo in connection with the Disneyland ride? What the hell?!
To be clear, Haunted Mansion (2023) is not a complete failure. There’s a lot of affection for the source material here, there were a lot of great ideas, and the three lead actors clearly understood the assignment. On paper, the film had everything I wanted from a Haunted Mansion movie, but it’s buried under thin writing, boneheaded casting choices, and and so much bullshit humor.
The big problem here — with Haunted Mansion and Ghostbusters both — is that crafting an effective horror/comedy requires a finely balanced and nuanced touch antithetical to most studio blockbuster franchises. This was a job for a scalpel, and they took to it with a chainsaw.
The end result is something that might be even worse than the 2003 film: A film that isn’t good enough to rally the fans and bring new life to the IP, but isn’t bad enough to necessitate another full reboot. I’ll be interested to see how it does on home video, and whether it gets Disney to change their mind about rolling the dice on a sequel.