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Happy haunts fill the Haunted Mansion: Movie Review

Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures

Foolish mortals are in for a few tricks and treats with Disney’s new Haunted Mansion, their latest theme park ride somehow ludicrously turned into a movie concept. There’s plot holes and pacing problems galore, but the story is also surprisingly sweet, spooky and fun all at once.

The titular mansion’s haunting centres around Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), an astrophysicist and inventor turned New Orleans tour guide frustrated by tourists’ fascination with local ghost stories. He doesn’t believe in them until he’s paid to look at an old mansion newly bought by a mother and son, and all their lives turn upside down once they learn it’s…you guessed it! Haunted!

The genres of horror and family comedy don’t naturally mix the same way scary movies mesh well with adult humour - both are adult emotions in storytelling, and clean horror is a genre of decades past. The last time this was even attempted was in 2018’s far less successful The House with a Clock in its Walls.

But for all Haunted Mansion’s plot holes and slow pacing, the balance of making the story and setting eerie, funny and entertaining at the same time works surprisingly well. The suspense and scary set pieces are enough to feel a small thrill - that’s a failure in standard horror, but just right for the film’s target audience of older kids and teenagers.

Sadly, there are more than a few bumps in the night. The two hour run time drags out the suspense in the mystery story way too far, and most of the filler dialogue feels too rigid and scripted. With so many talented comedians in the cast, it’s odd they weren’t given more freedom to play with each other in closed scenes.

But the cast is really great. Stanfield is a great anchor, but Disney favourites like Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito and Jamie Lee Curtis also make a meal of their kooky characters. Rosario Dawson’s Gabbie is heartfelt, and Jared Leto’s Hatbox Ghost is Disney’s best villain in years.

Film fans with long memories may recall this actually isn’t Disney’s first attempt at a Haunted Mansion movie: another, painfully unfunny adaptation came out almost exactly 20 years starring Eddie Murphy. What was missing from the 2003 version? Purpose, theme and sincerity.

This new Haunted Mansion is still faulty for trying to overstuff other Disney references into its plot, but at least this time they act as driving plot devices. Better still, it amounts to a balanced lesson for families, introducing the concept of managing grief in healthy ways.

There is one question I still had leaving the theatre: why in the world was this released at the end of July? Given the film’s spooky style, and especially since the final scene is on Halloween, releasing this mid-summer feels like a huge missed opportunity.

Releasing the film now and not several weeks later in September or October would’ve been both more thematically appropriate and also would’ve seen far less competition at the multiplex.

(Case in point: both Barbie and Oppenheimer are still dominating business in theatres, and another family movie comes out just next week. Delaying a few weeks would’ve seen Haunted Mansion premiere as a #1 hit.)

There are some screenwriting flaws and a few too many gimmicks, but I’ll admit that I had fun socializing with the Haunted Mansion’s grim grinning ghosts. Ultimately, I left grinning.

Haunted Mansion

6 out of 10

PG, 2hrs 2mins. Family Horror Comedy.

Directed by Justin Simien.

Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Chase Dillon, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto.

Now Playing at Film.Ca Cinemas, 5 Drive-In, Cineplex Winston Churchill & VIP and Cineplex Oakville & VIP. Also in IMAX.

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