HAUNTED MANSION Review. The House of Boredom

Is “Haunted Mansion” a successful comedy with elements of horror for the whole family, or maybe another Disney dud?

Maciej Kujawski

28 July 2023

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a modern Disney theatrical movie? Thinking about animations for the whole family? Thinking about superhero blockbusters from Marvel Studios? Or do you identify the Mickey Mouse company with Star Wars? Regardless of what you’ve come up with – and there are several other options – it’s fair to say that Disney’s mass-marketing strategy hasn’t evolved as much as you might think. The company still prefers the family model, and any new franchises would not fall under their rule, the production and marketing itself is usually the same proven pattern for a very long time. It’s easy to forget that the studio is also responsible for the occasional adventure film, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomorrowland or Jungle Cruise – their genotype is roller coasters and other themed attractions at Disneyland, the world’s most famous theme park. The first of these was a great success of the studio. Unfortunately, there are more infamous cases of attempts to adapt such attractions, and the first of these unlucky ones is Haunted Mansion from 2003. And now, twenty years later, we get a repeat of it, in a slightly different vision, coming out in the hot period of the great July premieres. Will it work this time?

Rollercoaster of familiar themes

New Orleans, a single mother (Rosario Dawson) with her child begins a new chapter of life in a lavish mansion. Even the very appearance of the place does not hide the fact that we as viewers know from the beginning, and perhaps from watching the trailer – the house is gothic from the outside and dingy from the inside is in fact a haunted house. Unreconciled with the loss of his father, the boy is not ready for further doses of fear, so the caring mother must take appropriate steps. Only a bizarre group of outsiders led by Ben Matthias (Lakeith Stanfield) can help drive away the vicious ghouls. On the one hand, he is an excellent photographer, and on the other, a loner lost in life. He presents himself like a tormented detective who overcomes the horror with cynical humour, which hides unresolved sorrows under the blanket of adventurous boldness. He is soon joined by an eccentric minister (Owen Wilson), a mad psychic (Tiffany Haddish) and an acerbic elderly historian (Danny DeVito). What can go wrong?

Haunted Mansion from twenty years ago used the same tactics as Pirates of the Caribbean, choosing a certain distinctive genre and casting a big star in the lead role. In the case of a pirate adventure, Johnny Depp was a bull’s-eye, and Eddie Murphy seemed to be a great choice for a fantastic family movie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out, and a strong, bravado director’s hand is something that ensured the success of the film about the adventures of Jack Sparrow, and the lack of this element in the case of comedy-horror meant that the audience basically does not remember it today. However, it provides a favorable situation for those creators who will try to do it again today. The very roller coaster that the film is inspired by allows you not to limit your creativity. After all, the attraction itself is not about telling a story, but only tossing a handful of themes.

Curse of one pearl

Unfortunately, Justin Simien’s latest film repeats the shallowness of, for example, Jungle Cruise, only targeting a different genre, so that the comparisons end with the general attitude of the creators. Their creativity and pugnacity is handcuffed by the handcuffs of corporate thinking, which assumes the creation of the correct product that meets a sufficient number of safe assumptions. The studio seems to impose “sufficiency” on them from above. This is a suitable product for slightly older children who like stories with a thrill, which perhaps they will not get bored, because it is colorful, and there are countless simple jokes aimed at them. Worse, however, with adults who will probably struggle to fall asleep on this comedy-horror. When in 2003 Jack Sparrow stepped ashore from the disintegrating ship, we felt that we, as the audience, were entering the exciting world of “uncharted waters”. In Haunted Mansion, the impression is quite the opposite. The director and screenwriter, instead of creating, recreate, instead of entertaining, they brainwash, and instead of teaching the younger viewers something important, they only point out that such a lesson was planned. Too much rushing on a barren surface here, which immediately evokes associations with a ride in an amusement park.

Bored mansion

On the conceptual level, Haunted Mansion is so unsophisticated and undeveloped that it may embarrass viewers with rich imaginations who enjoy creating dark stories. For example, the ghosts that should be at the center of the film’s visual appeal are uninteresting. You will not remember the appearance of any wraith or any of its characteristics from this séance. A recipient with a refined taste, brought up on the New Adventure Cinema, Ghostbusters or even the cinema series about Harry Potter – will turn up his nose at Haunted Mansion They miss the times when creators were not afraid to include darker motifs in works addressed to families, gradually teaching children fears and not stroking their heads. They struck with contrasting emotions, persuaded to expressive storytelling style, and did not shy away from the grotesque, one of the most difficult forms of performance to balance.

On the positive side, you can say that the acting crew is trying – just look at Danny DeVito playing like a child or Lakeith Stanfield striving for a variety of poses or perhaps the most effectively comedic role of Tiffany Haddish. Meanwhile, the effect of completely squandering their potential is irresistible. Each of the performers gets too few intense moments, and too many not distinguished by the script’s resolution. Let’s add to this the figure of director Justin Siemen, who earlier started in niche projects of a different profile with a chance to shine in such a unique convention as a comedy with elements of horror. The creator turns out to be the optimal craftsman. He knows how to make a film look quite atmospheric, accompanied by the successful work of stage and costume designers, but at the same time he rushes with the plot without feeling, afraid that the viewer will realize how trivial and dry the story he tells is. The saddest symptom of this approach are the scenes that mimic the amusement park experience, where the eponymous house is shot using a rotating camera movement, imitating the condition of a person who is just going through an extreme roller coaster – unfortunately, in a feature film it does not make such an impression and is stylistic dead end street.

A trip home

Haunted Mansion, as summer entertainment, does not nourish but fatten; it leaves the impression of apparent satiety, but the man gets hungry quickly after it. Justin Simien’s family-friendly work is shrouded in a faint shadow of the brilliance of New Adventure Cinema’s erstwhile productions of the 1970s and 1980s, and with July’s biggest hits: Barbie & Oppenheimer or another successful family film: Elemental, it looks like a sluggish reminder that dull Disney remains the same. . Once this stability seemed like a virtue, and today it is a colorless routine that will not save cinemas from an indisputable crisis. In times when it is increasingly difficult to achieve great success, and creators have to sweat more and more for this purpose, “enough work” is something that can only be destined for streaming. Instead of bothering the whole family to go to the cinema for Haunted Mansion, it’s simply worth using this time for something more exciting and engaging.