After a single mother and her son find out the house they have bought is haunted they must call in a team that can help them solve the mystery.
Someone said to me as I was walking into the premiere of Haunted Mansion “why would Disney make a film based on a ride?” I thought the answer to that question would be pretty obvious. First of all, one of the most successful Disney franchises – Pirates of The Caribbean – was based on a ride and second of all there are so many fans of and urban legends about the actual Haunted Mansion ride that it is a ripe for a story to be told – especially given that despite the ride being scary the previous film adaptions have gone the comedy route meaning that they have never captured the essence of what it feels like when you are at the attraction itself.
So, while that person was pondering the existence of the film my mind was focused on whether or not director Justin Simien had understood people’s fascination with the actual Haunted Mansion and whether he had found a decent way to capture that in the movie.
For those unaware of its backstory Disney’s Haunted Mansion is one of the most loved yet controversial Disney attractions. People have become fanatics over it and as a result there have been ‘stories’ told over the years. From rumours about a test rider literally being scared to death during the testing phase through to the fact that many of the artefacts found within, including Madame Leota’s spell book, are real and contain mystical powers. Then there is the hysteria around the Hatbox Ghost. He was a short-lived character at the mansion who quickly developed a cult following, but he simply disappeared very, very quickly. The Mansion creators said it was because the illusion never worked properly but of course the fanatics have other ideas about that. To me this film wouldn’t really capture the essence of the attraction if it didn’t feature some of those things.
To his credit I must say that Simien has been creative with this film aided by a pretty decent screenplay by Katie Dippold. Their story revolves around the damaged Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) a gifted scientist who has never recovered from the death of his wife. He was so gifted that he created a device that allowed ghosts to be photographed but today he wastes his time running tours of New Orleans while constantly drunk. Despite his past he also no longer believes in ghosts.
His life suddenly takes a turn though when a Priest named Father Kent (Owen Wilson) shows up at his door and offers him money to come and help a young family, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and Travis (Chase Dillon), who have a serious haunting issue at the home they have bought. So serious in fact that Gabbie, Travis and Kent now must spend every night at the mansion despite the horrors they endure.
Soon Ben finds himself part of a team that also includes a psychic named Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and a historian, Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito). Together they must solve what is causing the haunting in order to free themselves from the mansion and its hold.
I found myself very, very quickly won over by Haunted Mansion as a film. As soon as it started to delve into the mysticism and spiritualism of New Orleans I knew that Simien and Dippold understood the history of the real Haunted Mansion. When they then introduced the characters of Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), her spell-book and the Hatbox Ghost – here through his backstory known as Crump (Jared Leto) – I knew that for once we had a Haunted Mansion film that fans of the attraction were going to lap up.
Also to the credit of the filmmakers I found that the film was a lot darker than I expected. Even the backstory of Ben is a lot more confronting than what you would expect from a regular Disney film and it felt that Simien took this film from the family genre and really embraced the supernatural/horror elements of it. In a way the film sits more firmly aside ‘family’ films like Harry Potter and The Witches of Eastwick then it does many of the tamer films we have seen in the family genre over the past few years.
Dippold has delivered a great screenplay for characterisation and I found that enhanced some of the performances. Danny DeVito, Tiffany Haddish and Owen Wilson embrace the quirky nature of their characters and bring it to the screen with comical results while I found the highlight of the film for me was the performance of LaKeith Stanfield. He goes through the actor’s wringer here going from dark and brooding to the all-out hero with a performance that more than shows he is certainly one of Hollywood’s leading men nowadays.
With some amazing special effects and a story a lot darker than I expected I found Haunted Mansion to be a film that certainly captures the vibe of the attraction. But while those fanatics are going to love the film I do wonder how the film will be received by cinema audiences. It is certainly a little too dark for younger children so perhaps air on the side of caution if you were thinking about bringing your kids along to it – what I would say though is that if they love Harry Potter then there is a good chance they will like Haunted Mansion.
To conclude Haunted Mansion really surprised me with its tone but that is what made me fall in love with it the most… and now I want to buy a ticket to New Orleans as quickly as I can.