Does the new movie hold a candle to the iconic ride it is based on?
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT Haunted Mansion
5. Chase W. Dillon’s Performance
In a movie positively bursting at the seams with some of the most likable and charming performers in Hollywood, it is thirteen-year-old Chase W. Dillon who nearly walks away with the whole movie in his back pocket.
Dillon plays Travis, the son of Rosario Dawson’s character, who is one of the tenants trapped within the confines of the titular mansion early on. And despite Dillon’s character just straight-up dropping out of the story for huge chunks at a time, his performance is among the most emotional and funniest in the entire film. Even with the little that he is given, Dillon is fantastic.
4. The Cast
As mentioned a paragraph ago, the cast is overqualified to an insane degree.
A movie starring LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Tiffany Haddish, and Jamie Lee Curtis has no right to be as dull as Haunted Mansion is. Every cast member does the best they can with what they are given (with the notable exception of Jared Leto, whose villainous turn as the Hatbox Ghost is atrocious), but there are just too many of them and not nearly enough screen time to go around. The result is a collection of flat, one-note characters that are far beneath what these performers have repeatedly proven to be capable of delivering.
3. LaKeith Stanfield’s Performance
The best of the bunch when it comes to performances is LaKeith Stanfield, portraying the story’s primary protagonist.
It’s also worth noting that his character, Ben, feels like the clearest link to what writer Katie Dippold and director Justin Simien were actually attempting to accomplish here. Haunted Mansion feels so much like a film made by a committee that one can’t help but feel sympathetic towards its creative team, as they were clearly passionate about telling this story. Ben’s character arc works better than it should, given how mangled the film is tonally in the edit, and that is a testament to Dippold’s writing, Simien’s direction, and Stanfield’s performance.
2. Kris Bowers’ Score
Kris Bowers’ musical score is easily one of the most charming, entertaining, and consistently well-crafted elements of Haunted Mansion.
Bowers is an immensely talented musician and composer, and his work here sees him interweaving musical motifs and themes from across the source material’s history into a delightfully vast soundscape. The results are stellar, channeling the tone of the ride better than the film itself ever does.
1. The Production Design
Far and away, the most impressive thing about Haunted Mansion, visually, is its production design.
Production designer Darren Gilford and his team constructed a beautiful set that takes huge swaths of the layout from the ride and incorporates them into the very bones of the film’s visual language in fascinating ways. It would be even more impressive if it weren’t egregiously smeared over with lackluster effects work, muddy digital lighting choices, and some of the most uninspired ghost designs imaginable. Nonetheless, Gilford and his team’s work here is top-notch stuff.
An oft-overlooked element of Walt Disney and his studio’s work is the degree to which they mined horror as a genre. From the forest-set setpiece and Evil Queen-centric subterranean scenes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to the werewolf-esque transformation of a child into a donkey in Pinocchio to the hellfire-inspired fever-dream that is the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia, Walt Disney had not only a fascinating relationship with the horror genre. Even some of his earliest and most iconic short films, such as The Skeleton Dance or The Old Mill, explicitly see Walt and his team exploring the genre through their animation and often innovating within it.
This infatuation with horror carried directly over into Walt and his team’s work on their masterful attraction, The Haunted Mansion. The ride is such a pure distillation of Walt’s creative instincts as it relates to horror. Rather infamously, Walt and his Imagineers spent so much time toiling over The Haunted Mansion that its opening was actually delayed for years as they fine-tuned the ride to deliver an experience that was both fittingly spooky and enjoyable for all.
The new Haunted Mansion movie is heavily inspired by the ride, with production design, sets, props, and characters ripped straight out of Disneyland itself. And yet, it proves entirely unable to substantiate even a fraction of the ride’s creative verve or ingenuity.
There are interesting ideas present in Haunted Mansion that, if given room to breathe, could have really made for something captivating. The overt embracing of the New Orleans setting, the grief-stricken emotional angle, and a desire to blend spooky horror elements with a comically-game cast all sound like wonderful elements for a Haunted Mansion movie. However, the final result is so choppy, tonally dissonant, and underwhelming on every level. The entire third act feels like it’s made up of unrelated shots of actors standing in front of different green screens on different days, with nearly half of the dialogue done post-hoc in the ADR booth. It’s lifeless and unbelievably dull.
There are literally hundreds of haunted house stories and films. Famously, Walt Disney cited Robert Wise’s The Haunting as a huge inspiration for his own The Haunted Mansion. But what makes great haunted house stories such as The Haunting or Walt’s original The Haunted Mansion ride work is that the creator brings all of themselves to the table. The work isn’t unique because of its use of tropes but rather because of how the visionary behind the work utilizes them to burrow to the core of what they fear, what they believe, and what motivates them to tell this particular story.
The new Haunted Mansion is a corporate production, through and through. While it feels like the creative team involved had a genuine passion for the project and brought interesting pieces of themselves to the table, the theatrically released version is a heartless, soulless, distinctly commodified wok.