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‘Disney’s Haunted Mansion’ (review, 2023)

Disney / Buena Vista

Can dead things come back to the world of the living?

I used to hope so. But it’s starting to look like no power in this world or the next is going to resurrect the Haunted Mansion movie franchise, considering that both versions mangled it, and both crashed hard at the box office.

Unless your money’s on the Muppets, I would say this year’s long-awaited (well, me-awaited) Haunted Mansion has put the final nail in its coffin… and it may well be better off dead.

For twenty years I kept hope alive. I convinced myself the awful 2003 version tanked simply because it had the wrong creative team.

Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) and David Berenbaum (Elf) had solid creative pedigrees… but they clearly weren’t fans of the ride.

Consequently, they did the kinds of things that people do when they assume their ignorance is an asset and tried to fix things that didn’t need fixing. The Dad’s-working-too-hard-to-be-Dad plotline was completely at odds with the tone of the ride… and they ripped it off from Hook anyway. Many beloved ghosts were reduced to walk-ons. The singing busts became a one-note (ba-dump) gag, while Jennifer Tilly played the imperious Madame Leota as a whispering sex kitten.

And then there was Eddie Murphy, mugging and goofing like he was still riding on some leftover zany from The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

So when we heard in 2010 that Guillermo del Toro would be giving the Haunted Mansion a do-over (Jesus, has it been that long?), I felt my faith rewarded—or at least given a second wind. There were intriguing rumors that the Hatbox Ghost would be taking a central role. This was five years before Hatbox was restored to his perch in the attic, so del Toro was clearly mining some very deep veins. Reports that he planned to deal with grief and loss in his script were unexpected but not a dealbreaker… it wasn’t too far-fetched for a ghost story. And I was reassured by his reverence for the ride.

Unfortunately, del Toro’s version had trouble materializing and he eventually moved on to other realms. When I first heard the names of director Justin Simien and screenwriter Katie Dippold attached to the project—both talented up-and comers—I decided I would give the new guys a chance. As Dippold kept promising us, she too was a fan. Everything we loved about the ride would find a home in the new movie. The trailer (which I wrote about earlier) seemed to bear that promise out. It looked like fun—almost a love letter to my all-time favorite dark ride.

The 2023 Haunted Mansion is a lot closer to del Toro’s description than I would have guessed.

It starts on a heavy note of grief. Ben Matthias (the always superb and frequently sad-eyed LaKeith Stanfield) is a physicist who is mourning the death of his wife, a New Orleans ghost tour guide. Hoping to find her again, Ben has built a camera lens that can supposedly photograph spirits. One day he’s hired by a self-proclaimed priest and exorcist (Owen Wilson, who does not say wow once in the entire movie, though you never stop waiting for it) to document ghosts in a crumbling mansion owned by a mother and son (Rosario Dawson and Chase Dillon). As a scientist, Ben remains a firm unbeliever until a hitchhiking ghost follows him home, and—just as the Ghost Host promises us—haunts him until he returns.

After that, we steer hard into Shirley Jackson-meets-Ghostbusters territory, pitting an unlikely quartet of ghost hunters—the scientist, the exorcist, a psychic (Tiffany Haddish), and an antiquarian (Danny DeVito)—against an army of spooks. The big bads are all well-known to HM fans: the hatchet-wielding Bride, the not-at-all-redundant Hatchet Ghost, the Haunted Armor… and, just as del Toro proposed, Hatbox Ghost as the boss villain (played by nerdo-creepo Jared Leto). Fan favorites like the Organist, chandelier-swinging Rollo Rumkin, the Duelists, the Stretching Portrait ghosts, and just about everyone you remember from the ride are in the host of ghosts—with exceptions. The Singing Busts are absent. Also, where the freak is the Ghost Host (yeah, I know, he’s supposed to be Hatchet Ghost, but then he should talk like Paul Frees)? On the plus side, Madame Leota is back at the center of things, played to the hilt by that all-time great scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis.

A setup like this could have gone in a lot of directions, depending on which actor the filmmakers chose to follow.

Stanfield, Wilson, Haddish, and DeVito come from four very different schools of comedy: even when they’re in a room together, they’re rarely in the same movie. But the one we follow is Stanfield’s Ben, which leads us to think that the movie’s going to take a more or less human approach to the subject of loss. You occasionally feel the filmmakers trying to take it there. The boy, Travis, is grieving his late father the same way that Ben is grieving his wife. Hatbox Ghost (his true name is Crump, after the Imagineer who tried hardest to keep the ride weird) offers, or at least pretends to offer, a way for Ben and Travis to be reunited with their loved ones in death. That they’re even tempted to take him up on it is a nice bit of counterpoint: as in Beetlejuice, both the living and the dead envy each other. It’s not really what the Haunted Mansion is about, but it could work.

But then the movie loses confidence in itself and goes barreling down the Endless Hallway—literally—pumping the third act full of CGI and playing hard on the Scooby-Doo school of Running Down Corridors Away From Ghosts. If you come to this movie hoping there will be a scene of Tiffany Haddish hurtling through space in a high chair shaped like a Doom Buggy, you will not be disappointed. Night ends, curse broken, humans stay human and the dead stay dead. The resolution that follows is uplifting, but it’s forced. Having spent the whole movie being told to fear these ghosts, we’re now meant to enjoy their company. It’s not a journey that any of the characters—definitely not the ghosts—have been taking. It’s just there to make the movie be over.

There actually is a lot to like in the new Haunted Mansion. It’s just that the fun parts aren’t from the ride, and the things from the ride are mostly not very fun. The film’s cameos are a high point. An uncredited Winona Ryder and Dan Levy play the tour guides I wish I’d gotten at the Winchester Mystery House. Marilu Henner—in the movie for no other apparent reason than that she is Marilu Henner—plays an over-enthusiastic New Orleans tourist. They’re great, but they kill the mood. Ghost stories, even funny ghost stories, are fueled by claustrophia—our growing sense that the supernatural is inescapable and the walls are closing in. The minute we take a break to watch Stranger Things mom and everybody’s favorite apothecary from Schitt’s Creek play dress-up, claustrophobia is dead.

So I came away from the movie thinking, oh well, maybe they just got it wrong again. They hired the wrong team again. They fell into old traps. What’s everyone doing in 2043? Another filmmaker, the right filmmaker—if del Toro’s dead by then, then somebody—could still find a tone that harmonizes with the spirit of the ride.

But then I decided: no. It couldn’t work. Stop kidding yourself. If the Haunted Mansion could have worked as a movie, it would have done it by now. Sure, Muppets Haunted Mansion works, but that’s because it isn’t really about the Haunted Mansion. It’s about the Muppets. Everything the Muppets do becomes about the Muppets. Even if they made Muppets Grizzly Man or Muppets Apocalypse Now, the Muppets would win. Muppets always win.

But a live action movie that stays true to the ride? There are problems. To begin with, there’s the setting. Haunted house movies can get stagey. That other Disney ride movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, didn’t just have a subtitle going for it: it also had a very big ocean to sail around in. Pirate ships can take you to the world’s end. Haunted houses can take you to the basement. The best haunted house movies, like The Shining or Robert Wise’s The Haunting, lean into the claustrophobia. Even lighter fare like Coraline or Beetlejuice basically shut out the world. They pull you into a dollhouse universe, go for the extreme closeup, crawl into the heads of their characters. Disney’s demand for big franchiseable properties doesn’t mesh well with that kind of small, psychological fare. Mouse-level ambition demands a huge canvas, and the Haunted Mansion just doesn’t have one. I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way.

Then there’s the ghosts.

Despite their many differences, both the 2003 and 2023 versions have this in common: the ghosts aren’t treated as characters. They’re there to be ghosts (or occasionally g-g-g-ghosts). Dippold’s script tries to furnish some of them with backstories, but if we didn’t have those backstories it wouldn’t make any difference. That isn’t because the writers failed. It’s because part of the magic of the ghosts is that we don’t know who they are, or rather were. We’re free to graft our imaginations onto them. This is as true for serious horror as it is for horror-comedy. Imagineer Marc Davis conceived of the happy haunts not as characters but as visual gags. The genius of those gags is that they require no explanation: you can get the joke while your Doom Buggy stays in motion. The diplomat standing in his boxer shorts on a lit powderkeg wouldn’t become more interesting if we found out he’d once been a Cossack in the Russian Civil War.

Then there’s the tone of the ride, which is out of step with most horror-comedies.

I note that both Justin Simien (Dear White People) and Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation) are mainly known as satirists. Simien skewers racists and Dippold (somewhat more gently) deflates small-town America. That’s a problem: the Haunted Mansion does not skewer or deflate. Its humor is occasionally wry but basically celebratory. The ghosts enjoy being dead. The Ghost Host’s sense of humor can be pretty messed up (“Of course there’s always my way,” he says while daring us to find a way out of the stretching room—then dangles his own swinging corpse at us). But if the ghosts are joking at anyone’s expense, it’s their own. You see a decapitated knight holding his head, singing a duet with the executioner who relieved him of it. Upper-class ghosts are using a coffin lid as a seesaw. A ghost is bricking himself into his crypt.

The Haunted Mansion pretends to scare us, but basically it’s telling us in the nicest possible way to quit worrying about what happens after we die. It’s actually more of a feel-good ride than It’s a Small World. Which is why I always leave the Mansion feeling up and leave the other ride praying for our Small World to end in fire.

I believe all of these things could be fixed and yet the Haunted Mansion would still fail as a movie. The point isn’t that they didn’t make the movie right. The point is that the ride was only ever supposed to be a ride.

In the 80s, every movie pitch began with the promise that the movie would be a “ride.”

But rides aren’t movies.

Some rides contain stories, but rides don’t depend on stories to work. They’re about the world. You go in, the spooks perform for you, you come out blinking into the hot sun and go looking for a churro. If it’s a good ride, the minute you get off you want to get back on again. Every child dreams of getting out of the vehicle and getting lost in the ride forever. The Haunted Mansion feeds that fantasy better than every ride I’ve ever seen. But a movie? Movies end. People are supposed to change by the end of the movie. The nature of a ride is that it doesn’t end, it goes round and round and back again. It is the closest thing to forever that we will get in this life.

Which is finally the reason why they should not even try to make another Haunted Mansion movie.

We don’t need the movie. We are already on that ride.

* * * * *
Produced by Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich
Screenplay by Katie Dippold
Based on The Haunted Mansion by Walt Disney
Directed by Justin Simien
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito,
Rosario Dawson, Dan Levy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto

 

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