A few years ago, Martin Scorsese commented that modern superhero films weren’t ‘cinema’, but were equivalent to ‘theme park rides’. Very quickly, the quote went viral and the iconic director was absolutely roasted by fanboys who believed his comments were a slap in the face to the franchises that they loved.
One can only imagine how he’d feel about a theme park ride literally becoming a film.
Since Pirates of Carribean made waves 20 years ago (!), Disney has sought to find franchise gold within the walls of their theme parks. (Remember 2021’s Jungle Cruise?) Now, with Disney’s Haunted Mansion, the House of Mouse makes another attempt at launching a franchise from their popular dark ride. (This is actually their second attempt at doing so after having tried with Eddie Murphy in 2003… but we don’t talk about that one.) And thankfully, while no one should expect Mansion to ride the financial wave charted by Pirates’ success, there’s no doubt that Mansion is good enough to scare up some profit on its own.
Haunted Mansion tells the story of Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), a frustrated ghosthunter whose faith in the afterlife has waned. But his skepticism is challenged when he’s visited by Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest who’s been called by a mother and child to an old home to perform an exorcism. Kent invites Ben to step foot in the mansion himself to collect proof of the haunting. However, after Ben accepts the challenge, he finds far more than he’d bargained for and begins a battle against the underworld with massive implications.
Directed by Justin Simien, Haunted Mansion is a delightfully fun, family film that feels like classic Disney adventures. Unlike Murphy’s failed attempt, this trip to the Mansion keeps itself firmly rooted on the ride itself, featuring numerous throwbacks to iconic imagery. Floating candelabras, dancing ghouls in the dining hall and, of course, Madam Leota’s spherical head all harken back to its origins. Each room contains potential spooks and scares with familiar foes, ranging from the Ghostly Bride to the infamous Hatbox Ghost. As such, while the film’s characters tour the facility, the viewer almost feels as though they’ve hopped on a Doom Buggy and taken a trip through the halls of Disneyland’s ride. While some will argue that Haunted Mansion never fully embraces its horror potential, to do so wouldn’t fit the Disney brand for a film such as this.
This Mansion unashamedly embraces its theme park roots and wants to bring you along for the ride.
Underneath the haunts, this Mansion does have a heart within its walls, specifically through the character of Ben. As broken ghosthunter Ben, Stanfield drives the film’s emotional story with his grief-induced skepticism. In many ways, grief fuels the story as each character carries their own burden to bear. Whereas some have lost loved ones, others are dealing with a past filled with ridicule. As they do battle with the 999 happy haunts’, each character allows their own personal troubles to bubble to the surface, forcing them to deal with their inner darkness. For them, death feels like an appealing option, if only to release them from their suffering. As such, while Mansion never dwells too deeply into its psychological underpinnings, it highlights the ways that holding onto grief can keep us trapped in our own emotional prison.
Having said this, despite its content and setting, the film never allows itself to get too gloomy. Fueled by comic veterans Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, and Tiffany Haddish, the story continuously seeks to break the tension with humour. (Though, for that reason, one could also argue that there’s too much comic relief to let the story truly resonate.) Balancing silly with somber, this Mansion wants to welcome everyone and thus, keeps the tone light-hearted enough to be fun for all ages.
For this reason, I’m ready to hop back in the Doom Buggy for another ride. One simply can’t deny the absolute joy of visiting this incarnation of the Haunted Mansion. Whether or not you’ve made the trip to Disneyland or are simply looking for a good laugh, this Mansion is absolutely is more than willing to open its doors to everyone.
After all, there already may be 999 (happy) haunts, but there’s always room for one more.
Haunted Mansion is available in theatres on Friday, July 28th, 2023.