Welcome (back) foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. Following a heavily panned, albeit unfairly, adaptation of Disney’s classic theme park attraction, Haunted Mansion is given a second after-life. The new film by Justin Simian features a new cast and story and does what the previous movie did not. It expands on the lore of the attraction while also telling an emotional and relevant story. It also amps up the scares and laughs to make this reboot a truly happy haunt.
Single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon) prepare to move into their new home. Following some supernatural sightings they decide to abandon the property but quickly realize the haunting continues unless they return. Determined to end the haunting they enlist the help of a quantum physicist (LaKeith Stanfield), priest (Owen Wilson), professor (Danny DeVito), and medium (Tiffany Haddish). The group soon discovers that they are all trapped, held under the influence of the menacing Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto). Together with Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) they must solve the mystery to be free of the house’s spells.
The cast boasts a lot of star power, and each delivers in their respective role. Dillon and Stanfield are standouts, effortlessly blending humor and pathos. The story is theirs, and they carry the film. The rest of the cast gets their moments to shine in a script that gives each character their due. Leto, unrecognizable under heavy makeup and CGI, is the only wasted opportunity. While the character looks picture perfect, Leto does not have the opportunity to bring more to the character than what is on the page.
Amid recent controversy over the placement of the Hatbox Ghost in the Walt Disney World attraction, the details in the film are sure to delight Disney Parks purists. The film not only embraces the lore of the source material, it expands it and enhances the story of the ride. Visual nods abound and one moment in particular ups the cameo game beyond just familiar faces. There is an evident love for the attraction amongst the cast and filmmakers and that joy spreads to the audience. The visual references are enough to encourage repeat viewings, giving weight to the catchphrase “You’ll be back.”
Director Simian does an admirable job of blending heart, humor, and thrills. This can serve as a good gateway horror as the scares are present and occasionally intense but never gratuitous. The overarching theme of handling grief is well-managed and sincere. The New Orleans setting helps inspire the culture and music. The score by Kris Bowers imbues a jazzy influence to familiar themes and new arrangements that accent the locale splendidly.
The film’s visuals however occasionally distract. While the ghouls in the films materialize in many different forms, the CGI gives all a very cartoonish appearance. Perhaps intentional to ease back on the horror, the design and brightness are distracting nonetheless. This is particularly noticeable when considering that Imagineers created the ride with practical effects that are striking and still impressive over 50 years later. To the filmmakers’ credit, there is not as much of an overreliance on CGI as in many tentpole films which is a welcome change.
Despite some visual hiccups, Haunted Mansion is a grim, grinning good time. Packed with references and allusions to the namesake attraction and expanding on the ride’s story, the filmmakers took great care in honoring the source material. The ensemble led by Stanfield and Dillon are all given moments to shine with characters that are memorable. Director Simian balances the terror with heart and humor, making this a great film for the brave souls ready to dip their toes into the horror genre. After the credits roll, a smile, like a ghost, will follow you home.