Review: Disney’s Haunted Mansion Gives the Beloved Theme Park Ride a Welcome New Narrative

When I was a kid, one of the first pieces of vinyl I ever owned was an audio version of Disney’s The Haunted Mansion, containing all the music, voices and spooky sound effects from the theme park ride. There was also a booklet with images from the ride (or at least artistic renderings of the various rooms and sections of the ride). So by the time I actually went to one of the parks as a kid (and every other time hence), I rode that ride several times and had a blast seeing this impactful record come to life.

I choose to forget and ignore the 2003 movie The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy, which had virtually nothing to do with what was going on at the Disney parks. But this latest version (simply titled Haunted Mansion), directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair), does an impressive job of not only capturing the look and atmosphere of the attraction, but it also gives it a sense of place (New Orleans) and history that adds to the ride’s non-existent story, which feels like a collection of ghostly tropes (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense). 

Written by the great Katie Dippold (The Heat, Ghostbusters-female edition, and many episodes of Parks and Recreation), Haunted Mansion tells the story of single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) who has recently purchased a mansion that—spoiler alert!—may be haunted. She hires former physicist-turned-ghost tour guide Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), and historian Bruce (Danny DeVito) to both confirm the ghostly presences and exorcise them from her home so she and her young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) can live there peacefully. The mansion comes with many stipulations, making it impossible to leave once you’ve set foot inside; namely, one of the home's many spirits attaches itself to you as soon as you enter, so leaving does you no good.

I couldn’t get over the sense of familiarity as we go from room to room in the mansion. The carpet, the wallpaper, the paintings and other adornments and knick-knacks look so remarkably like ones found on the ride that you’d almost need to go frame by frame through the movie to really spot everything. In the opening prologue, we meet Ben in happier times, when he meets his wife-to-be. But after skipping ahead a number of years, he’s a different, broken man. Worse still, he’s a  guy who doesn’t believe in ghosts who's giving ghost tours. Once sensing something might be going on in the mansion, he opts not to help, but a sea captain ghost follows him home and floods him out of his apartment, giving him no choice but to return.

As this odd and often quite funny team investigates the nearly 1,000 ghosts located in the mansion, they begin to discover how these spirits got trapped in this place, going back to the original owner named Crump (Jared Leto), who turns out to be the main antagonist of the film, the legendary Hatbox Ghost from the ride (who is definitely not assigned any importance on the ride, other than looking cool). Other memorable characters from the ride pop up, too, most notably Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), the ghostly spiritualist whose head floats in a crystal ball; the blood-thirsty Bride ghost (Lindsay Lamb); and there’s even a cameo by Winona Ryder as a dispassionate tour guide (I’m not sure why she’s in the movie, other than the fact that she stars in one of the absolute funniest haunted house movies of all time, Beetlejuice).

Having a plot forced upon the formless Haunted Mansion ride makes sense, even if some of what Dippold and Simien come up with as far as structure doesn’t always work. In truth, it’s the exceedingly strong cast that holds Haunted Mansion together, especially Stanfield and Dawson. Stanfield simply gives himself into the concept; he’s playing Ben straight, which actually allows moments of genuine fear to enter the movie. He doesn’t believe in anything supernatural, so in order to convince him they’re real, the ghosts have to work extra hard to strike terror in his heart. DeVito just gets to act unhinged, and that’s always a treat, while Haddish does terrific work playing the character with the most knowledge of the undead world, which is meant to be a comfort, though her information isn’t always accurate.

As I’ve said before, knowing where something scary comes from doesn’t always make it more scary, and that’s certainly true with Haunted Mansion. Digging through Crump’s past may help solve certain mysteries about what his ghost is scheming, but it doesn’t add any real intrigue or tension to the story. It’s the characters that propel the movie forward and the reliable actors playing them, and thank goodness because I could not stand to have my childhood gateway drug into all things horror get trashed once again.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.