There is a good amount of scares and enjoyment to be found in Haunted Mansion, even though its props and makeup are noticeably rusty.
Full disclosure: I have never been to the actual Disneyland Haunted Mansion. You might call me unqualified for that, but in my defense, I don’t think everyone that reviewed Pirates of the Caribbean rode the theme park ride either.
Based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name and directed by Justin Simien, Haunted Mansion follows Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a disgruntled astrophysicist turned tour guide, who’s living with troubled thoughts about the afterlife after his wife died. When he is roped into helping out at a spooky mansion by unwilling residents Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), Ben finds that ghosts are indeed real, some of them harboring malicious plans he can’t Get Out of.
For those of you who stumbled across this review to see if this movie is worth checking out, I have two things to say. First, thank you for finding this out of all the other articles on the internet. And second, your enjoyment of Haunted Mansion will depend mainly on your expectations. If you’re a pure horror buff, you won’t find much to praise here. There are a couple of creepy scenes and some cool ghost designs, but most of the scares are about as subtle as a Chucky doll in a barbie store.
Yet that is okay, because that’s not what this film is going for. Haunted Mansion is more of a kid’s adventure with paranormal elements on the side. Less The Exorcist and more Ghostbusters. The plot is a typical ghost story, the lessons and backstories are fairly standard, even the ghosts are specifically themed and look more like Halloween store decorations rather than trying to make you sleep with your parents tonight. All of this makes for a rather cartoonish tone throughout.
And it’s not like the movie tries to bury this fact six feet under. Within the first ten minutes, we have Gabbie witnessing a ghost in the mansion, saying flatly “Nah, we out.” and nope-ing out of there. There’s a far bigger emphasis on witty dialogue and comedy on a pretty consistent basis so that I could comfortably settle into the film’s tone.
It helps that the characters are quite likeable. Yes, Ben may be your typical “lost his wife backstory” protagonist, only slightly less conventional than the “dad has a family” protagonist trope, but LaKeith Stanfield really sells that shallower backstory. Each of the cast has good chemistry with each other, and even the kid character managed to not be annoying. Jared Leto is also noticeably having fun hamming it up as the main villainous ghost, and it’s enjoyable to see. Although they missed the perfect joke opportunity by not making him a vampire bat ghost.
I was never truly surprised by anything in this movie. It was more that I walked in with virtually no expectations, and that Haunted Mansion wasn’t surpassing them by a huge margin. But at the same time, there were some touches I appreciated, such as there not being any forced drama moments between the cast. In addition, while it may be more kid-friendly, the film manages to avoid feeling overly juvenile for the most part. It doesn’t have to rely on basic crutches like toilet humor, but instead lets the character interactions do the job.
But note that I said “for the most part,” because it is at the climax where I feel the movie gets too silly even for its own standards. This is where the haunted mansion starts showing more obvious animatronics or cardboard cutout ghosts. The effects in this movie is not the best, as some of them look right out of Luigi’s Mansion for how they are rendered. But it’s especially noticeable when Jared Leto summons hundreds of overworked VFX artists’ souls – I mean CGI ghosts – in the climax.
Then there’s also the character work getting far too heavy handed, to the point where some of them feel counterproductive to each other. For instance, slight spoilers, but there is a scene where Ben talks Travis through about letting go of the dead. Excellent lesson for both kids and adults to keep in mind. And then literally five minutes after, Ben suddenly is tempted by his dead loved ones and has to learn the lesson he just taught himself. It doesn’t just feel unsubtle, it’s downright awkward like The Ring ghost in a barbie costume. (Scratch that, that sounds horrifying.)
Still, even that climax is tolerable for the most part. In fact, this whole movie is. Haunted Mansion really is true to its namesake. Just like a real haunted house attraction, it had plenty of scares and fun provided you embrace its cheaper elements. Yes, it might be clearly for kids, but who says adults can’t have fun with kids’ stuff? I mean, I’d still dress up and go trick or treating if I could get away with it. Even if I have to deal with my adult responsibilities of keeping my blood sugar in check.
Haunted Mansion is now available to watch globally in theaters.