A Few Decent Laughs Can’t Save Disney’s Haunted Mansion
Disney’s new Haunted Mansion is a hot mess, but it’s a sporadically entertaining one. Family-friendly horror-comedies have always been a tough subgenre: You need the scares to prove your horror bona fides, but go too far and the children will run screaming from the theater; rely too much on comedy and you’ll undermine the thrills. This one also comes with franchise expectations and a big price tag, as it’s based on a theme-park attraction. (It’s the second such attempt, actually. A tepid Eddie Murphy vehicle was made back in 2003.) That’s a lot to ask of any film. It’s amazing that anything in Haunted Mansion works, even if most of it doesn’t.
At first, the melancholy charisma of LaKeith Stanfield might not seem like an ideal fit for such material. But Haunted Mansion turns out at least partly to be about grief, and Stanfield lends a woebegone charm to Ben Matthias, a brilliant astrophysicist working with dark matter whose life falls apart after the death of his fiancée. Now, he half-heartedly leads ghost tour guides around New Orleans, which used to be her job. (As she notes in their opening scene together, they’re both trying to see the unseen.)
Having once developed a lens that can photograph dark matter — a “ghost camera,” if you will — the grieving Ben is roped into helping Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), a single mom who has moved into an abandoned local mansion with her introverted son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), only to discover that it’s crammed with ghosts. Our mopey hero doesn’t really want any part of this, but he bonds with the shy Travis, who misses his father and is ostracized at school. Also, they’re basically trapped: Once the ghosts in the mansion come into contact with you, it seems, they follow you around, as Ben discovers when he returns to his apartment and finds it turned into a raging ocean.
The team grows to include Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a dodgy exorcist; Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a clumsy psychic; and Professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), a hibachi-happy historian who happens to be an expert in haunted houses. That’s a game cast, and when the film leaves them to their devices, a certain camaraderie peeks through. The actors seem to be having fun with one another, and their energy occasionally carries over to us as well. Stanfield and Wilson in particular make a fun comic duo.
Other times, however, Haunted Mansion falls prey to the same problem as a lot of VFX-driven horror movies, which is that the actors don’t always look like they know what they’re supposed to be reacting to. (Wilson is an old hand at this; he was in 1999’s bombastically slapdash The Haunting, exhibit A in this category.) Here the issue is further complicated by the fact that there’s little tension around whether there are ghosts in the house; the place is literally swimming in them. That’s an interesting idea — a good one for a kids’ movie — but the characters don’t so much interact with the ghosts as just sort of walk through and around them. Sometimes there’s a jump scare. Sometimes there’s a joke. Most of the time, there’s nothing. The wasted potential here is enough to make you scream.
The screenplay was written by Katie Dippold (The Heat, the 2016 Ghostbusters), but one can also sense the hand of director Justin Simien (whose Dear White People remains one of the great debut features of the past decade) in the growing paternal bond between Ben and Travis, and the way that emotional thread winds up paying off narratively. Alas, there’s not enough of that, either. Maybe Simien and Dippold pulled back of their own accord. Or maybe at some point Disney decided the company didn’t want anything too sincere or emotionally weighty in their giant theme-park movie. Either way, it’s a mistake: The movie has no core. Without characters to care for, Haunted Mansion is just a bunch of stuff.