A grieving former scientist gets much more than he bargained for after volunteering to help a widow and her young son with pesky unwanted house guests. Haunted Mansion captures the spooky fun of the theme park ride with a gaggle of family-friendly humor. LaKeith Stanfield leads an all-star cast on a paranormal adventure loaded with banner visual effects. The film vastly improves on the 2003 adaptation by never succumbing to silliness. The opposite is true, as Haunted Mansion has a detailed storyline and solid emotional core. It runs a tad long with complexity but keeps the grins and goosebumps coming.
In New Orleans, Ben Matthias (Stanfield), a NASA scientist who designs optics for space research, becomes smitten with a charming tour guide. Alyssa (Charity Jordan) believes in ghosts, spirits, and everything supernatural. The unlikely couple fall hard for each other after a brief romance. Some time later, a shattered Ben has abandoned his career and taken over Alyssa’s successful business. His heartbroken demeanor and sarcastic comebacks doesn’t damper tourist enthusiasm for creepy endeavors.
Meanwhile, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), arrive at their decrepit new home. The mansion was a steal and offers a new beginning for the family after suffering their own tragic loss. A terrified Travis thinks that something is following them through the house. Gabby scoffs at first but realizes he’s right. They race back towards their car but aren’t alone in their escape.
Unwelcome House Guests
Ben gets a visit from Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest hired by Gabbie to exorcise the demons from her abode. A thoroughly skeptical Ben almost pushes him out the door before the lure of easy money changes his mind. Father Kent hopes that Ben can photograph the supposed apparitions with his specialized camera. Ben agrees to meet Gabbie and Travis but doesn’t take them seriously. She warns him to be sure before crossing the threshold.
Ben walks through the house faking picture snaps. These people seem nice but are obviously crazy and wasting his time. Ben returns home to find that something also followed him. The terrifying encounter has Ben back at Gabbie’s door step. He’s not happy to see Father Kent also at the house. Gabbie’s ignored warning has trapped Ben in the same freaky predicament. They must figure out why the ghosts won’t leave them alone and how to get rid of them. The desperate gang seeks help from a college professor (Danny Devito) and wacky psychic (Tiffany Haddish).
Director Justin Simien (Dear White People) and screenwriter Katie Dippold (The Heat, Parks and Recreation) skillfully surmount the most important and difficult obstacles. Haunted Mansion has to be funny and scary at the same time. But it’s primarily a children’s movie, so it can’t be too frightening and thus risk alienating the target audience. Then you factor in the ride’s global popularity after six successful decades at Disney parks. The film had to incorporate those elements without being cheesy and stupid. In fact, there’s surprisingly several pleasant jump-out-of-your-seat moments.
Haunted Mansion’s Fantastic Cast
The ensemble cast is fantastic, but Stanfield does a banner job giving the film emotional heft. Ben is a broken man wallowing in misery and loneliness. He doesn’t see a future with any semblance of happiness. Gabbie is also trying to rebuild her life with Travis. He has no friends, gets bullied at school, and is now facing threatening ghosts in the place where he’s supposed to be safe. Ben becomes a new father figure through care, nurturing, and confidence. Travis, like all struggling kids, needs someone to lean on and provide guidance. Ben takes a heroic turn as he helps Travis to cope with tragedy and address death in a thoughtful way.
Haunted Mansion has an elaborate plot that evolves into a full-blown mystery. The characters become detectives as they investigate the ghastly demise of previous owners. This pulls back another curtain to reveal their true nemesis pulling the strings. Then they have to figure out how to battle and defeat a ruthless enemy with an evil agenda.
There’s a lot going on here to a fault. The film clocks in at a shade over two hours. That time isn’t wasted with trivial nonsense. The clues add up and require a degree of attention to understand what’s happening. It goes overboard by juggling a lot of different pieces. Simien could have pared down the narrative without sacrificing the humorous, heartfelt, and eerie bits.
Haunted Mansion works splendidly from a novice perspective. I went in cold with scant knowledge of the ride and purposely forgotten memories of the awful previous iteration. Conversations after viewing with satisfied fans of the source material gives a thumbs up across the board. The filmmakers tick every box and deliver an enjoyable experience with just the right amount of chills.
Haunted Mansion is a production of Walt Disney Pictures and Rideback. It will have a July 28th theatrical release from Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.