Fans of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland or Disney World will be well-satisfied with this new cinematic iteration of the famed theme park staple brought to life. Haunted Mansion is a charmer, with easily-digestible and smooth characters and characterizations propelling us through this ride. The other side of it is that it’s entirely formulaic, its machinations being as worn as an old pair of jeans with the knees being almost diaphanous. Even though this film could’ve just as easily been titled as the second remake of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts, it’s still good enough to stand on its own.
Haunted Mansion rides completely on alternately slick and enthusiastic performances from its leads, all of whom elevate the plot and dialogue to the point where we want to hear what comes out of their mouths next. It’s not so much how the film moves, with the requisite funhouse scares and “evil mastermind” storyline; it’s that the characters are so fully realized in both word and action that makes us groove along with them.
LaKeith Stanfield imbues lead character Ben with what a recent song would call a “low, bored monotoned vocal fry,”* evoking a barely-masked pain while creating a thirtysomething curmudgeon bitten hard by how life has treated him. From astrophysicist to New Orleans walking tour guide, our Ben has fallen hard, wallowing in loss and self-pity and smelling “like yesterday,” as his bartender friend puts it. He can’t even bring himself to care about his assigned guests, to whom he delivers a very Chidi Anagonye-esque rant about how there’s nothing past this life and that nothing we do matters because we’re just going to die.
Stanfield is one of this film’s chariot-bearers, throwing himself with muted charisma and strength into a fairly arch role. Along with Stanfield, Rosario Dawson and Chase W. Dillon give their all to mother-son team Gabbie and Travis, recently relocated to a gigantic mansion “an hour north of Baton Rouge.” Soon enough – like, “we just started the movie!” soon enough – they discover the house is haunted, “nope”ing out of there as soon as humanly possible. Gabbie, a doctor herself, enlists Ben through intermediary Father Kent (Owen Wilson), approached to perform an exorcism on the house.
In only his second feature film (the first being The Harder They Fall, incidentally also starring LaKeith Stanfield), Dillon is a pure delight to watch as one of our guides through this movie; his raw ebullience underlaid by a saddened weariness is a hard tone to hit, but he hits it in every scene. No matter what Travis is doing – playing with action figures, wistfully remarking on his lack of friends, climbing up a wall, or running from a supernatural suit of armor – Dillon’s pure sass and childlike emotion are strong anchors which never lose their purchase.
Dillon holds his own against veteran actors who turn in brilliant performances themselves. Sure, Owen Wilson might be doing his thing, but it’s perfectly used here in his role as a priest out of his depth. So, too, does Rosario Dawson bring a brightness to Gabbie, single mother and current owner of a house where spirits are in line to harm her and her son. And not one, but two sources of comic relief in Tiffany Haddish and Danny DeVito, and neither of them are bogarting the spotlight, but rather sharing it to help each other and everyone else shine? This is a cast of genius, so well-placed and used to the maximum without going too far.
It’s also thanks to director Justin Simien, who knows precisely how to rein in or push the cast to be their own special effects in a film full of them. He balances smarts, tension, and performances to wring the most out of every shot, and the result is buoyant and enjoyable. At times, Haunted Mansion feels like a made-for-younger-Disney-audiences Sam Raimi movie, kinetic and mind-warping, heavy on the Dutch camera angles and distorted fields of view. It doesn’t hurt for excitement, nor does it leave you wanting.
Well, sort of. You could almost feel more scares in the offing, but they’re dialed back for family-friendly viewing. And that’s where Haunted Mansion stumbles a bit; it has to be safe. Screenwriter Katie Dippold does what she can and Simien does wonders to make her words manifest, but with the need to be safe, so must certain character constructions and action be. Dippold harks back to solid archetypes that serve Disney film heroes so well, but in doing so, we’re not given anything new; the film relies entirely on the actors to make their characters stand out from the rest, and thankfully, they’re up to the task.
Certain character and action beats and the “YOU’RE NOT ALONE!” denouement seem plucked off the Disney discount rack, repurposed and made to strut, but it’s more of a limp than strut. The central conceit – a certain number of ghosts is required for the villain to achieve their glory – is where the comparison the 13 Ghosts comes into play, and this film’s finale will draw more than enough glances toward the 2001 remake. Also, it seems that for every fright sequence, an equal amount of time is spent de-escalating our heart rates and plying us with personal drama, exposition, and opportunities for laughs. It’s not a bad thing, but it does impact the running time, making Haunted Mansion feel about twenty minutes too long. But safe is where Disney wanted it, and safe they got.
Yet, there are times when a film rises well above being more than its script, influences, and studio mandates. Simien has a good handle on how to shock and scare, but he also knows how to move, both emotionally and in pace. The acting ensemble is top-notch, going for gusto and bravery and achieving it; comedian Jo Koy even makes a memorable appearance in a bit part. Haunted Mansion is a film that’s just as much about taking a beloved attraction and making it real as it is about the people who make us believe in it. The cast deserves an outstanding mention for their success in lifting a by-the-numbers script out of being ho-hum and making it dazzle.
*Exhausting Lover, Ben Folds, from the album What Matters Most