Trigger Warning: Haunted Mansion possesses several scenes involving flashing lights or where a character either swings a flashlight or points it directly toward the audience. This may be problematic for audience members with photosensitivity.
When it comes to movie-making, it’s easy to understand why studios rely on established intellectual property (IP) because the more an audience is familiar with something, they less work the studio needs to do to market it in order to garner interest. By tapping into what’s already there, sometimes a movie doesn’t have to be good to get butts in seats, it just has to capture the specific feeling of the IP to be enjoyable. It, therefore, makes sense that a theme park business like Walt Disney would use their studio arm (Walt Disney Studios) to leverage their attractions as theatrical events. While it’s safe to presume that everyone was surprised by how entertaining and rewatchable Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) was upon release, with releases like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (1996) (originally released as The Wind in the Willows), Tower of Terror (1997), The Country Bears (2002), and The Haunted Mansion (2003), the odds that Pirates would not only be good, but that it would spawn *several* sequels stunned us all. The latest attraction-turned-film is Haunted Mansion, directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People; Bad Hair) and written by Katie Dippold (Ghostbusters: Answer the Call; The Heat), which seeks to do what Pirates did so well, create an original story that incorporates the ride organically. For the most part, Haunted Mansion succeeds by being a thrill ride from start to finish, utilizing aspects of the ride naturally while telling a story of rejection, grief, and acceptance, even if it’s a little long and predictable. If you’re the sort who digs on this kind of semi-family friendly ghost story, Haunted Mansion is now available on physical and digital formats with over 30 minutes of bonus features *and* is streaming on Disney+.
If you’d like to learn about Haunted Mansion in a spoiler-free capacity, head over to EoM Senior Critic Hunter Heilman’s initial theatrical release review. Beware ye who travel past here, as there will be spoilers.
Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) is a scientist who doesn’t believe in ghosts but who has spent a great deal of time developing a special lens and equipment that can capture the specific spectral resonance of ghosts. This knowhow comes in handy when he’s introduced to Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son Travis (Chase W. Dixon) who claim to be suffering from a severe haunting within the walls of the dilapidated mansion she purchased in hopes of setting up a bed and breakfast, and are looking for proof. Gabbie figures if they can prove that the haunting is real, maybe they can figure out a way to excise the ghosts from the property. To do so, they are going to need all the help they can get, but there’s a powerful specter on the property who needs one more soul in order to escape the confines of the property and take his evil out into the world, and the conditions are nearly ripe for his escape.
Let’s get one thing clear — Haunted Mansion earns its PG-13 rating. So if you’re thinking of putting this on for the younglings because it’s on Disney+, be prepared to spend bedtime rocking them down for a minute. The obvious things are the ghost characters, whose costumes, makeup, and actions remind this viewer of classic horror tales or, more appropriately, how I used to react to the makeup in Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video as a kid when it would appear on MTV. The work done by the costumers and special effects departments makes the ghosts actual threats, so in the few scenes they appear in, whether alone or as a group, it’s spooky enough to remind the audience that they’re watching a more mature family-friendly spectral tale. The less obvious comes in aspects of the cinematography, such as when Jeffrey Waldron (You Hurt Me Feelings) sets the tone for what we’re dealing with in the house as Travis first tries to walk into the house only to discover that no matter how many steps he takes, the hallway grows ever longer. It’s a small but effective touch signifying that things in the house aren’t as they seem, even before Gabbie has her own fright and the pair take off for safety. There’re various touches like this throughout the film, helping to create unease and disquiet beyond the expected jumpscares or Haunted Mansion references. The ways in which the camera conveys the blending between the known and supernatural world create several unsettling moments that deliver unexpected frights. Unfortunately, it’s the expected that brings down the film quite a bit in a way that’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Based on the advertising, a safe presumption is that Gabbie and Travis are the focal point for all the creeps and characters that inhabit this story. In truth, it’s Ben who is our way in as the grieving widower who keeps looking for evidence of ghosts simply to reconnect with his wife who passed away some time prior to the start of the film. Thus, the film is about Ben recognizing that the time with his wife was valuable and that he’s spending his time in a way that both hurts him and wouldn’t be what he wife would want. To do this, his path connects with Gabbie and Travis, two characters who moved down to New Orleans in order to start fresh from their own loss. The script doesn’t flat-out say this until the last moment, but anyone who’s paying attention to the wordplay can tell that Gabbie’s husband passed, spurring both their move and Travis’s extra fearfulness. Therefore, the Hatbox Ghost, a.k.a. Alistair Crump (Jared Leto), is given two potential victims to use to gain him his freedom. In order for the characters’ arcs to feel complete by the end of the film, the narrative needs to explore their respective plights, however, doing so, especially when Tiffany Haddish’s Harriet (the medium), Owen Wilson’s con-man Kent, and Danny DeVito’s Professor Bruce Davis each need their own mini-arcs to make their involvement more than just support thereby slowing down the momentum just enough to be noticeable. Each performer does get a moment to make their involvement entertaining and none overstay their welcome, but there’s just so much that requires exploring — the characters, the house mythos, the themes — that it can start to feel a little much after some time. We’d do well to keep our eyes on Dixon because his scene in the basement between Ben and Crump is a powerful one, making one forgive the obviousness of the plot and believing in the pain, anguish, and loneliness that this child feels absent his father.
Now, if you had a good time with Haunted Mansion and pick it up, be advised that there are two featurettes totaling 20-minutes, eight deleted scenes, and a brief gag reel. The featurettes are split. One part is the “Making Haunted Mansion,” which delves into exactly what you expect, making the film from the perspective of the cast and crew. It’s the kind of thing that helps you appreciate the work that goes on to make a film reality. The second one is a lengthy walkthrough of the various easter eggs hidden throughout the film that park/ride enthusiasts are likely to be the first to catch. The remainder is exactly what you expect – eight scenes offering more time with various characters (including the Carols) that were clearly cut for pacing, and a blooper reel showcasing the silliness this cast got up to.
As someone who grew up watching The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) each Halloween and remains traumatized to this day, make sure that you consider the personality of your kids before showing them Haunted Mansion. It leans into the PG-13 rating more than one might expect from a Disney film, which is by no means a problem as there was a time when Disney put out family fare with a bit more teeth. Haunted Mansion fits snuggly in that position, making a great opportunity to see if your kid might just be a horror hound in the making. If this sounds like your family, there’s still time before the end of spooky season and the calendar switches to more puritanical holidays to get your weird on.
Haunted Mansion Special Features:
- Making Haunted Mansion – Hear from cast, crew and filmmakers about creating this grim grinning adventure based on the world-famous ride. See how the ghosts were “brought to life,” what role new technology played, and how the wildly popular attraction inspired the film’s design. (13:18)
- 999 Happy Haunts – There are 999 Happy Haunts inside the Disney Parks’ attraction…but always room for one more! See all the Easter eggs (well, maybe not all of them) where characters big, small, alive, departed, human and otherwise appear in both the movie and the ride. (7:00)
- Eight (8) Deleted Scenes (10:46)
- Gag Reel (2:32)
Available on digital and Disney+ October 4th, 2023.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and digital October 17th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Walt Disney Studios Haunted Mansion webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.