I will never forget the first time I rode The Haunted Mansion at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Between the eerie atmosphere waiting in line by a cemetery to the carefully constructed storyline, the immersive ghostly terrors were an instant case of love at first sight. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for 2003’s Eddie Murphy vehicle, aptly titled The Haunted Mansion. Whilst the fun and whimsy remained intact, the still heart of the picture lay lifeless. Now a full two decades have passed, and Disney decided to dust off the cobwebs for a shinier, more faithful rendition of their iconic amusement park attraction. Director Justin Simien (Hulu’s Bad Hair) may seem like an odd choice to helm the film, but an obvious understanding of the campy gateway horror tone unleashes a decidedly different flavor of mayhem. The snappy script from Katie Dippold (The Heat, 2016’s Ghostbusters) provides zingers galore from a wholly impressive ensemble cast, including Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Lakeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Jared Leto, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Set in vibrant New Orleans, Haunted Mansion latches on for dear life and never lets go.
Gabbie (Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), have just moved to a lush mansion deep in the heart of New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, the duo quickly discover courtesy of crackling lights, spooky shadows, and self-moving armor that this home may be haunted. At least they have the good sense to abandon ship immediately rather than to stick around in the face of freakish unexplainable phenomena (see: almost any other movie or show set around a haunting.) Ghosts latch onto Gabbie and Travis, proving that leaving a house will not save you if the undead want your attention badly enough. Gabbie’s scenario sets off a domino effect, roping in many others she hopes can help rid her of the unshakable ghostly presence.
A former astrophysicist studying dark matter, Ben (Stanfield), has been stuck in a rut since the passing of his beloved, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). Now, Ben runs a historical walking tour, content at living out his best grumpy curmudgeon ways, and shooting down any theories about ghosts being real. “We’re all dirt,” Ben insists. Definitely don’t call it a ghost tour. Perhaps Ben will be swayed after setting foot in the mysterious mansion; it only takes a $2,000 offer for Ben to agree to go there, and utilize his spirit photography expertise. Father Kent (Wilson) insists that an exorcism has already been attempted on the house unsuccessfully. One thing he fails to disclose is that the ghosts latch onto anyone who enters, thereby cursing them in a way. Kent helps Ben recruit others to rid the home of its unwanted ghost-guests—one is Tulane professor, Bruce (DeVito), whose book on Louisiana haunted mansions “sold about nine copies”; the other has been doing psychic readings at bar-mitzvahs, the oracle, Harriet (Haddish).
Jared Leto also appears as the big bad, the Hatbox Ghost, and is nearly unrecognizable. Haddish and DeVito are undoubtedly the MVPs—each play up their physical comedy, especially DeVito. Both characters they play are surreptitiously ejected from the house upon entry, and react accordingly in one of the film’s best scenes. A hilarious sequence featured in many of the trailers wherein Bruce and Ben describe the Hatbox Ghost in detail for the sketch artist left me laughing out loud. Though she does not appear until about midway in, Jamie Lee Curtis, playing Madame Leota, is mostly relegated to being a CGI-head stuck in a crystal ball. Leota delivers the exposition, and warns of the Hatbox Ghost’s goal of stealing 1,000 souls, straight from the amusement park ride! Oscar-winner Curtis receives probably the least screen time of the main cast, yet is used so sparingly that her every moment onscreen counts.
Where does this Haunted Mansion thrive while the other withered? The humor actually fits amongst the horror and heart. Ben emerges from his depression with the help of Gabbie and Travis. Their connection reverberates through every moment of Haunted Mansion, making the laughs feel earned through the character-first vulnerabilities depicted in the script. At one point, Harriet defines what she calls “ghost winks,” which are signs in the real world we see and feel from those we have lost. This touched me in a very sincere way. I see signs from loved ones constantly, feeling them here if not physically, then spiritually. It helps that this strange collection of characters consist of people who experienced tangible love and loss. Travis and Ben especially are at one point said to be the most vulnerable to The Hatbox Ghost’s trickery, so how fitting that the duo are the absolute emotional core of Haunted Mansion.
Haunted Mansion wears inspirations on its sleeve as badges of honor rather than emerging a poor imitator. The underworld may as well be The Further from the Insidious franchise, and the captivating story of Alistair Crump definitely rings a horror bell for those who have seen 1999’s The Haunting (or really, any of the numerous “The Haunting of Hill House” adaptations.) What a shame that Disney did not learn from the failure of Hocus Pocus twenty years ago, again categorically failing an endlessly entertaining Halloween-themed movie by releasing it deep into July. Despite being considered a box office failure, Haunted Mansion will please Disney fanatics and families looking for something a little darker just in time for Halloween.
Haunted Mansion opens its doors to Disney+ subscribers on Wednesday, October 4th—just in time for spooky season!