HAUNTED MANSION Review: Second Adaptation of Theme Park-Ride Better Than The First

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
HAUNTED MANSION Review: Second Adaptation of Theme Park-Ride Better Than The First

In another, better universe, this weekend – or possibly any other weekend between 2011 and the present – would have seen the much-anticipated, feature-length debut of Guillermo del Toro’s Haunted Mansion.

Unfortunately, a long-gone nameless studio executive nixed del Toro’s screenplay, claiming it was too dark, too twisted, and simply too spooky for smaller children. That nameless exec might have been, on balance, right from a purely commercial perspective, but that doesn’t diminish the sting associated with another unseen, unmade del Toro effort (among far too many over the last two decades).

Instead, audiences, whether curious due to the subject matter, nostalgic over the theme-park/ride connection, or simply because the other major releases from last weekend are booked solid, will have to settle for the Kate Dippold-written and Justin Simien-directed Haunted Mansion, a preteen-oriented, aggressively noffensive, ultimately forgettable adaptation of the popular, long-running theme park attraction. It might just be perfect for undemanding preteens and their equally undemanding parents or caretakers. For everyone else, the perfect kid-oriented horror-comedy remains out there somewhere, waiting to be realized, seen, and appreciated.

Simien (Dear White People) and Dippold’s (Ghostbusters, Heat) combined efforts center on Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), a melancholy astrophysicist-turned-paranormal-tour-guide. Ben isn’t a believer in the paranormal. Far from it, actually, but he left a successful academic and professional career behind to work on a spectral camera capable of capturing ghostly apparitions on their nightly haunts.

Unsuccessful in his various attempts, Ben drowns away his sorrows at local New Orleans bars, harangues paying tourists for their naivety vis-a-vis their beliefs in the supernatural, and otherwise struggles to get by. He remains, however, friendless and joyless, incapable of overcoming the seemingly unbearable burden of grief connected to the premature death of his wife. (Grief in its multifarious forms provides Haunted Mansion with its central theme, handled superficially here as expected.)

While Ben goes along, but doesn’t get along, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), a medical doctor with grief issues of her own, and her nine-year-old son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), moves into the haunted mansion of the title. Purchased sight unseen via Zillow, presumably on a whim, the mansion presents Gabbie and Travis with a unique problem: Once they’ve stepped over the front threshold, they can leave at any time, but the ghosts inhabiting the mansion can too, following them wherever and whenever they go.

It’s probably Haunted Mansion’s cleverest conceit, answering the usual question associated with haunted houses and such: Why not just leave when you can? Here, the answer is simply you can, but it doesn’t matter because the ghosts, once attached to an individual host, refuse to stay behind.

That, in turn, presents a local priest, Father Kent (Owen Wilson), with a dilemma: How to exorcise an entire mansion filled with hundreds of ghosts. To that end, he enlists the help of a recalcitrant Ben, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a self-confident psychic/medium, and Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), a local college historian with a deep knowledge of the area’s history, myths, and legends. Together, they turn into an adult version of the Scooby Doo gang, investigating the mansion’s backstory, including the original builder, its subsequent occupants, and the shockingly high number of deaths attributable to a long-dead serial killer by another name with hundreds of bodies to his name.

That monstrous, ghostly killer – inexplicably played by an Oscar winner – and its vague, fuzzy goals proves to be a major disappointment. Resembling a no-less-than denuded Grinch, the CGI-created villain might elicit shock or surprise from inattentive toddlers, but no one over the age of three will find him even remotely scary, let alone compelling. He’s a perfect example of a studio so frightened by the idea of horror in a kid-oriented horror-comedy that they go entirely in the other (wrong) direction. Kids aren’t as fragile as Disney executives obviously assumed when they tipped the scales against potential frights or scares.

The bland inoffensiveness continues with a script positively littered with Easter eggs, broad humor, and physical gags, along with a barely memorable production design or generic, imagination-starved set pieces. Ultimately, that leaves the cast practically on their own to elevate the material in whatever way they can.

Stanfield adds an element of depth and gravitas to an otherwise shallowly written role, Wilson his usual droll, deadpan deliveries, Dawson her usual committed performance, and the pint-sized Dillon the obligatory sense of wonder and awe at the haunted proceedings that unfold around him.

Haunted Mansion opens Friday, July 28, exclusively in movie theaters, via Disney Pictures.

Haunted Mansion

  • Justin Simien
  • Katie Dippold
  • Rosario Dawson
  • Jamie Lee Curtis
  • Winona Ryder
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Chase DillonHaunted MansionJamie Lee CurtisJustin SimienKatie DippoldLaKeith StanfieldOwen WilsonRosario DawsonTiffany HaddishWinona RyderComedyDramaFamily

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