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Go behind the scenes of Haunted Mansion with director Justin Simien and the cast
Featurette: Walt Disney Pictures

Haunted Mansion
Directed by Justin Simien
Rated PG-13
Cleaned 28 July 2023

This second attempt at a big-budget adaptation of Disney’s Haunted Mansion amusement park ride still doesn’t conjure up all the right spirits.

Dream Team

Haunted Mansion movie poster

Let’s be fair. This one’s much better than the 2003 overly simplistic fiasco starring Eddie Murphy. That movie was DOA.

Timing’s everything, so this new, multi-star ensemble movie could be seen as celebrating the 20th anniversary of its predecessor by dancing on its grave. It’s a great cast: LaKeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah), Rosario Dawson (Ahsoka on Disney+), Jamie Lee Curtis (all those Halloween movies), Danny DeVito (Batman Returns), Owen Wilson (Loki on Disney+) and Tiffany Haddish (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent). Quite the lineup, plus a cameo from Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice).

With a great cast comes great responsibility and that’s where the problems begin.

Gabbie (Dawson) is a single mother raising a young son and looking for a fresh start by fulfilling a dream: purchase a mansion in Louisiana and start up a bed and breakfast. For some reason, though, people — including Gabbie — keep arriving at the mansion in the thick of the night. Rather unwisely. Sure, it should add to the spookiness, but it still turns into a failure to create an imposing environment.

But, okay, this is a Disney movie adapting a Disney amusement park ride. So, cut it some slack, right?


Pirates of the Caribbean was a Disney movie (well, series) based on a Disney amusement park ride, but the movies took things to the next level and explored all manner of mariner lore and mythology. Those movies were done a massive, epic scale that worked really well (yes, through all five movies in the Johnny Depp-led franchise).

Haunted Mansion, though, never reaches that elevation and it feels stuck — trapped in Disneyland — without a suitable mechanism to take things to the next level.


It should be easy enough. Consider all the mystique and lore surrounding New Orleans, a jaunt down the highway from the titular mansion. All the history, all the tragedy. The hurricanes. The magic. The music. The voodoo.

It starts out promising enough, with Ben Matthias (Stanfield) having turned into a burned-out astrophysicist working as one of the worst (strike that — he is the worst) walking tour guides in New Orleans. He doesn’t believe in ghosts; it’s his attitude that’s horrifying. His life has hit a rough patch following the death of his beloved wife in car crash. That’s a terrific (sad, but terrific for the narrative) hook with which to build a strong, emotional core.

But, instead of really digging into New Orleans life and lore and taking the Pirates approach of expanding the ride’s universe, things quickly turn into a Ghostbusters-lite affair. That’s no doubt the endgame of a screenplay written by Katie Dippold, who wrote the underappreciated 2016 Ghostbusters reboot featuring an all-female ghost-busting crew supported by a male office assistant (played by none other than Chris Hemsworth).

Even that Ghostbusters vibe could’ve been put into better service here, though.

Ben’s a super-smart guy who created a high-tech camera for spectral photography in hopes of capturing photographic evidence of his late-wife’s spirit. Another great element in that narrative hook. Bringing Gabbie into Ben’s life to try to capture photographic evidence of the mansion’s haunted activities is another solid idea.

Nonetheless, it gets goofy — actually, all kinds of Disneyfied, not just “Goofy” — as the cast grows.

There’s Kent (Wilson), a priest looking for help with cleaning the mansion (think of Poltergeist when Tangina says, “This house is clean.”). And there’s Harriet (Haddish), who is one of New Orleans’ less-effective spiritualists. Add Bruce (DeVito), a paranormal expert with a limited following, and the rest is inevitable.

It’s a rag-tag crew of hacks and fraudsters (Kevin’s not really a priest, he’s just putting on a show; Harriet’s bluster is extra-large while her skills as a medium are extra-small) thrust into a truly paranormal activity. (And, by the way, taking a cue from Gremlins, you should never, ever leave the mansion after midnight.)


Haunted Mansion turns into a disappointment because it has all those elements at play — good ideas and a great cast working with characters and relationships holding loads of potential — but it misses the requisite spookiness almost as much as the Murphy movie.

Director Justin Simien (Dear White People) and his production team do a terrific job of capturing so many details from the classic park ride: the witty tombstones, the dining room, the animated paintings, the stretching foyer, the menacing skeletal villain, the woman in the crystal ball. So many details are packed into the movie’s frames, it would seem as though more than half the battle should’ve already been won.

But, it ultimately dwindles down to this thought: when Gabbie attempts to spend the first night in the dusty, cobweb-riddled mansion alone with her son, she lights a candle. More specifically, a vanilla candle.

It’s unfortunately emblematic given the movie’s a little too vanilla for its own good.

But there’s another detail to that candle. It’s a specific brand name. And that candle’s not alone in what becomes a bizarre cavalcade of obnoxious product placement and (brand) name dropping. Characters living in the “real” world are great, but the era of crass product placement is an unwelcome ghost from movies past.

• Originally published at

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