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‘Haunted Mansion’ REVIEW: A Swinging Wake

After 20 years, ‘Haunted Mansion’ is getting a facelift. In 2003, Walt Disney Pictures invited audiences to a version of ‘Haunted Mansion’ that frightened them – away from theaters and the notion of ride-based films entirely. While this adaptation is tame in terms of scares, what it lacks in spooks, it more than makes up for in heart and authenticity to its namesake attraction, making it another win for Disney’s 2023 summer slate.

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999 Happy Haunts

Fans of Disneyland’s iconic attraction can rest in peace knowing that ‘Haunted Mansion’ not only takes the ride’s lore seriously, but it also incorporates it heavily into the story.

The opening sequence explains why New Orleans is the perfect location for ghostly experiences and immediately ties the film into the ride’s location in the park. The Hatbox Ghost, a fan-favorite character who even got his own tiki mug at Trader Sam’s, is the movie’s big bad. Murderous bride Constance Hatchaway is also prominently featured, never far away from her signature hatchet.

The hitchhiking trio, the dueling brothers, the old man and his dog – even casual fans of the ride know and love these characters, and they too have their place in the film. With each new part of the mansion that gets explored, it’s Easter eggs galore as audiences are introduced to more grim grinning ghosts.

Arguably the most iconic part of the Haunted Mansion ride is the infamous stretching room, and the film knew just how to utilize it. While not a long scene, it’s definitely a memorable one. The way the dangers of each painting was incorporated was ingenious, and it’s one of the only sequences in the movie that actually gets your heart racing.

There’s Always Room For One More

The happy haunts aren’t alone in the mansion, as the living have moved in! All of the breathing inhabitants of the mansion are new characters, created specifically for the film. While none of them will prove as memorable as any of the ghost hosts, they are the true heart of the film and inspire a story that makes this movie more than just a two-hour Doom Buggy trip.

Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) is a paranormal tour guide with a tragic past who finds himself at the mansion to help mother and son duo Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and Travis (Chase W. Dillon). Stanfield toes the line between crushing grief and comedic apathy perfectly, creating the most well-rounded and personable character in the ensemble. In a horror-type film such as this, you’re always wondering who will come out alive, and Stanfield’s character was the only one I was really pulling for to make it through.

Dillon is a scene-stealer and provided some of the biggest laughs of the film. He portrays nuances in his character I wouldn’t expect from an actor his age. He has a bright future in this industry if he can hold his own against comedic legends like Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito.

Tiffany Haddish is one of those actors who can quickly go from just enough to way over the top, and given her Madame Leota-like character, she was the one I was the most worried about going into the film. I was pleasantly surprised though, that she portrayed Harriet with an understated power, quick to provide comedic relief to a haunt-heavy scene but didn’t turn to kitsch and dramatics to make her character memorable.

The Real Chills

Back in 2010, Guillermo Del Toro was attached to write and produce ‘Haunted Mansion’. While this obviously didn’t happen, I would have been interested in seeing just how much Del Toro could push the line of horror in PG/PG-13 to make a truly terrifying experience at the mansion. I, a complete wimp, have no problem with the lack of jump scares and spooks in this film, but as a true “dark ride”, the script could have been more menacing, leaning on horror rather than comedy as the film’s main genre.

The true horror to “Haunted Mansion’ didn’t come from the ghost hosts, but from the overt and pathetic amount of advertising and brand-name dropping in the script. It starts off innocent enough, with Haddish’s character lamenting that they only candle they have for their seance is a “French vanilla-scented Yankee Candle”. But then in the same scene, she mentions CVS and Costco, and it goes from funny to groan-worthy. During one of the most emotional scenes of the film, Baskin Robbins is shoehorned in, ruining the momentum of a moving monologue from Stanfield. Making movies costs a lot of money, I get that, and marketing and advertising are a huge part of this industry, but resorting to stark product placement in films is not the way to earn revenue. If anything, I’ll be getting my candles from Bath and Body Works from now on.

Hurry Back

While I may not be a grim ghost, this film did leave me grinning. It’s a true love letter to the iconic ride that tells its own story while never forgetting where it comes from. ‘Haunted Mansion’ is what ‘Jungle Cruise’ and ‘Tomorrowland’ should have been, and what I hope the Big Thunder Mountain and Tower of Terror movies will be. It’s at its best when pulling directly from the source material of the attraction and is bound to leave any true Haunted Mansion fan dying for more.

‘Haunted Mansion’ premieres in theaters on Friday, July 28.

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