Haunted Mansion, 2023.
Directed by Justin Simien.
Starring Rosario Dawson, Chase Dillon, LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, Winona Ryder, Jared Leto, J.R. Adduci, Creek Wilson, Ben Bladon, Lindsay Lamb, Charity Jordan, Fedor Steer, Terence Rosemore, Mike Benitez, and Erika Coleman.
A single mom named Gabbie hires a tour guide, a psychic, a priest and a historian to help exorcise her newly bought mansion after discovering it is inhabited by ghosts.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Haunted Mansion wouldn’t exist.
Despite a huge budget for special effects and production design, there is so little to Haunted Mansion and its mostly corny attempts at scares that it just doesn’t pass as an engaging feature-length film, let alone one over two hours. It’s inspired by the Walt Disney World attraction, to be sure, but without much inventiveness, complete with a basic story about grief. On the upside, LaKeith Stanfield is trying his damnedest to give a solid turn finding some emotion here, alongside some harmlessly amusing turns from reliable comedic veterans such as Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito. Director Justin Simien and screenwriter Katie Dippold basically just put the ride on screen with a bigger budget, expanding the backstory of the mansion in clichéd meaningless ways, which doesn’t translate to a good movie.
Haunted Mansion is also unwieldy, overstuffed with characters and subplots to the point where there are two prologues. For some reason, the one involving a haunting comes second, as the priority here is the paint-by-numbers story about loss and grief. LaKeith Stanfield is failed astrophysicist turned tour guide Ben, who seems irritated that everyone around him has a Halloween spirit and believes in mythological ghost stories and haunted houses. He wasn’t always like this, as he once had a paranormal investigator lover (Charity Jordan). He even used his scientific knowledge to develop tools to help try and capture such ghosts on camera.
Elsewhere, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) is creating a fresh start for her young son. Travis (Chase Dillon), moves into a mansion that they soon find out is haunted. They also can’t leave since the ghosts follow and haunt them wherever they go next. Through some deception, they put together a team of frauds investigating the titular haunted mansion hoping for an easy payday (inevitably paving the way for a climactic generic message about how anyone can be a hero, even if there are some admittedly funny dialogue exchanges along the way), who come to have no other choice but to work together to piece together the mysteries of this place and figure out how to put the spirits to rest. Of course, Ben is roped into this, also learning to process his grief properly.
The aforementioned team includes a priest (who is not really a priest) played by Owen Wilson, perfectly in step with the wholesome, family-friendly horror comedy vibe, an earthly educator (Danny DeVito) eager to visit the mansion and investigate even if he is set to have heart surgery soon, and a sloppy medium (Tiffany Haddish) who has the power to communicate with the dead, but not necessarily refined skill. Ben also strikes an involving bond with Travis, who can relate to the loss of his partner by not getting to see his father anymore.
These familiar and predictable plot points would be forgivable if the hauntings here had a degree of inspired creativity to them. It also doesn’t help that the filmmakers consistently take the narrative away from the mansion to investigate the past, centered on the owner, who is now a ghost (Jared Leto) haunting the other ghosts. There’s hardly a memorable sequence, mainly relying on these ghosts’ sights and basic antics to provide spooky laughter and entertainment.
It would be unfair to say that Haunted Mansion is boring, but none of this sticks beyond acknowledging how much money went into making it possible. It’s a better comedy than family-friendly horror, but even that aspect of it only has its moments of fun.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com