I’d like to think that I’m a large proponent of “horror films for kids,” even if they don’t always particularly excite me as an adult viewer. Films like Goosebumps (2015), Monster House (2006), Beetlejuice (1988), and Hocus Pocus (1993), while not my personal taste, provide young audiences with a milder window into the world of spooky cinema and can open the door for people of all ages to dip their toes into the vast array of horror offerings available to them, should they so wish to explore. In recent years, I’ve also noticed a new trend of horror for adolescents, which isn’t particularly just “PG-13 horror,” as it feels separate from the mid-2000s trend of taking clearly R-rated horror films such as Prom Night (2008) and One Missed Call (2008) and cutting them down to a more marketable PG-13 rating for a quicker buck, horror that more actively markets itself to a young adult audience, much like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), The Boogeyman (2023), or even television series like Stranger Things (2016- present). Hell, I’d even throw Andy Muschietti’s R-rated smash hit It (2017) into the mix, despite its rating. These films are a bit more advanced in the horror field, unafraid to shed some blood and get really in your face with the horror, while also still bringing things back around to keep a nice happily ever after at the end for good measure.
Now, one film I have failed to mention is Disney’s take on “horror for kids,” that being 2003’s The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy and based on the eponymous ride featured at multiple Disney parks around the world. I didn’t mention it because it’s a pretty bad film as a whole. It was at the height of my childhood, which seems primed for peak nostalgia for me to explain to you why it’s secretly “underrated” or whatnot, but I genuinely can’t. I didn’t really even like it as a kid, and the only thing from it that has stuck with me over the years isn’t the film itself, but rather Raven-Symoné’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on the film’s soundtrack that played around the clock on Disney Channel that summer. Still, if we’ve learned anything from film studios in the past few years (besides being greedy bastards unwilling to pay creatives), it’s that if one film fails, reboot it as many times as you need until it succeeds, dammit! Somehow, the fact that it took until 2023 for a new reboot of Haunted Mansion (The word “The” is so 2003), feels like a miraculous exercise in restraint.
Perhaps restraint isn’t the word needed here, but perhaps resiliency, because Haunted Mansion has been in development hell for years. Once announced in 2010 with Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro at the helm, and, in 2015, Oscar-nominee Ryan Gosling slated to star, it was looking to actually shape up to be a successful reboot with far more care put into it than the slapstick original film. But as the studio system goes, development stalled for years, and everyone once involved moved on to bigger and brighter things, and the project changed hands countless times, eventually ending up in the hands of Ghostbusters (2016) screenwriter Katie Dippold and Dear White People (2014) director Justin Simien.
Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) is a single mother from New York starting a new life with her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon) in New Orleans. Settling into their affordably-priced estate outside of the city, they immediately discover the house to be haunted by hundreds of malevolent spirits. After attempting to leave, they are forced back into the home by the spirits who will not allow them to leave. Desperate for help, Gabbie assembles a team of professionals who can assist her: Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a Catholic priest who works to exorcize the home; Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a lowly psychic who seeks to speak with the dead; Bruce (Danny DeVito), a professor who knows the history of the house; and Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a jaded widow and former physicist who had developed a camera to see spectral beings, and is only helping for Gabbie’s generous payment for his services. As the team explores the treacherous and trippy mansion looking for answers, they discover the evil spirit at the heart of the house’s history, and find themselves fighting for their lives.
I mentioned both “horror for kids” and “horror for adolescents” in my introduction because, while the 2003’s The Haunted Mansion falls into the PG-rated former category, 2023’s Haunted Mansion seeks to fill a role in the latter PG-13 category, at least it did when under the initial tutelage of Del Toro. One of the larger issues of Haunted Mansion (of which there are many), is that we have a film with an objective amount of thrills and scares to push itself to a PG-13 rating, but the tone of a film made exclusively for young children. This leaves the end result feeling woefully unsure of who exactly the film is made for, and, in being pulled in every direction, fails to really achieve either goal successfully.
Haunted Mansion is yet another film in a series of studio films that have budgets so far beyond what they actually look like. In any other time, spending nearly $158 million on a Haunted Mansion film at Disney would guarantee a film that looked the part, with gorgeous visuals, beautiful sets, and the budget to take risks in creative filmmaking, but much like the output of so many films of late like Fast X (2023), The Little Mermaid (2023), and even Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) to a certain extent (I actually quite liked that one, but does it look like it cost $300 million to make? Absolutely not), the budgets are getting higher and the end products are looking and sounding worse than ever. Never does anything within Haunted Mansion feel truly tactile or real; every set feels like a green screen mishmash of actors who are giving performances like they aren’t even in the same room as each other, and a performance from Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota that I genuinely, earnestly, in my heart of hearts believe was AI generated. There’s nothing here that feels like they used the inflated budget for anything other than to somehow find a way to pump out the product (because this feels like a product more than anything) as quickly as possible.
Does Haunted Mansion have its moments? Sure. I won’t deny the film that. It has the occasional laugh in an otherwise bland screenplay. It has the occasional scare in an otherwise un-scary film (I can somewhat excuse it not being scary given its nature, but I also must reiterate the “darker” tone they clearly wanted here). It’s occasionally touching, even if the emotional element of the screenplay feels entirely too tragic and out of place in such an otherwise silly film. It has occasional moments of something that feels human, but sporadic genuine moments don’t equal anything resembling consistency.
Also, did I mention that this film is somehow 122 minutes long?
Is Haunted Mansion better than its 2003 predecessor, The Haunted Mansion? The jury is still out on that one, seeing as they’re both overly silly takes on the Disney IP that don’t really succeed at either horror or comedy, but I might give the slightest of edge to the original film if only because that film felt like it had a living, breathing set, with a living, breathing house behind its bad screenplay, and therefore a bit more of a soul at its core (emphasis on “a bit”). Perhaps Haunted Mansion’s biggest sin isn’t that it’s not particularly funny, or that it’s not particularly scary, or that it squanders a very impressive cast in a boringly overlong narrative, or even that it’s a visually ugly film, but more so in that it just doesn’t feel like the film is made for anyone. It’s too scary for young kids, it’s too childish for adolescents seeking the PG-13 horror it promises, and any adults who want a good time at the movies are so incredibly spoiled for choice at the moment that I can’t imagine this being on their radar when Barbie, Oppenheimer, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Talk to Me, Theater Camp, etc. are all right there for the taking.
In theaters July 28th, 2023.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.