A single mom named Gabbie hires a tour guide, a psychic, a priest and a historian to help exorcise her newly bought mansion after discovering it is inhabited by ghosts. (from IMDB.com)
In 2003, as Disney was debuting one ride-based movie franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean to a willing audience, they also introduced another one for The Haunted Mansion. Led by comedian Eddie Murphy, the PG-rated family film received poor reviews and a lukewarm reception, and was doomed to be forgotten — or at least remembered for being the bomb that it was. Now, twenty years later, Disney has taken a second stab at making the ride into a feature film, with Haunted Mansion. Boasting an impressive cast that includes Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito and LaKeith Stanfield, Haunted Mansion is an adventure comedy/drama that makes use of a PG-13 rating to deliver a little more chills and thrills, while still trying to keep it realtively family friendly.
If I had to liken the film to anything, tonally, it would probably be the black-and-white horror comedies of years gone by (Kind of like the ones featuring Abbott and Costello). There are plenty of ghosts and creepy imagery, but it’s never gory or extremely frightening. The characters are also all relatively likeable, but what surprised me most about Haunted Mansion is… it actually has heart. The movie is thematically very much about loss and grief and what it is like to deal with it at different stages in life. The film also kind of works as an allegory for how easy it can be to give up on life and lose ourselves in grief, and what that could cost us (and others). This theme is what really makes Haunted Mansion work as more than just a horror movie, theme-park-ride movie, or your average Disney cashgrab.
But speaking of cashgrabs, while the movie appears to have its heart in the right place, it is completely ironic to find a ghastly amount of product placements and brand name-drops throughout its runtime. Some movies have a few – or plenty, but they are placed well enough that it goes unnoticed – but it’s truly distracting to note just how many products and services are mentioned in the movie. By the fifth or sixth very noticeable ones, it starts to feel insulting (and it’s really not good if you then start feeling the need to look for them or anticipate the next one). I love a good reference to pop culture, but Haunted Mansion begins to feel like a feature-length Disney product catalog after a while. (We see the little boy Travis playing Monopoly by himself at one point, but I couldn’t tell which version it was, so I Googled it and found this article that answered my question but also pointed out just how many placements there are — from Black Panther and Yelp, to Yankee Candle and Zillow!)
With that gripe aside, I have to say I was overall pleasantly surprised by Haunted Mansion. I love Owen Wilson, so it was fun to see him play a priest in this movie (and if you’re worried that it might get sacrilegious, I wouldn’t say that it does, but the character turns out to not exactly be all he appears to be either). It’s funny, because I’d say the movie very much feels like a marriage of the Night at the Museum and 1999’s The Haunting (in a good way, believe it or not), and coincidentally Wilson is in both movies. Heck, by the end of Haunted Mansion, Wilson seems to be going almost full-Jedidiah with his character even. LaKeith Stanfield, who doesn’t seem to have many family-friendly movies in his filmography, plays the film’s lead — Ben, a tour guide who is pretty down on his luck — and shares the rest of the focus with Rosario Dawson’s Gabbie — a single mom who moves into the titular manison. Mix in the goofy antics of DeVito’s historian character, Bruce, and Tiffany Haddish as a semi-gifted psychic, and you have a pretty solid cast supporting this thing.
While a priest is involved in the story, the haunting aspects of the story do bring about a couple seance scenes, administered by Haddish’s comedic medium. And while it’s often a hoax in other movies, it’s a lot more “real” in this one. There’s even an out-of-body moment and a brief body possession from another spirit. The tone is kept pretty light throughout in spite of all this, but I definitely felt spiritually uncomfortable at times (it’s hard to explain what I mean by that; you just kind of have to feel it). The spiritual aspects are likely to make many viewers (particularly Christians) uncomfortable with the presence of magic and spells and murders and ghosts, so I definitely would recommend exercising caution and using your own discernment when it comes to watching Haunted Mansion. Again, it’s got its moments of merit, for sure, but anyone who’s spiritually sensitive will want to be cautious.
Obviously a movie like this, especially in 2023, will be relying heavily on special effects. For the most part, the effects aid the story, but there are times where they don’t work as well or feel excessive. Jamie Lee Curtis plays the ghostly head trapped inside a crystal ball, and I’m not quite sure why they chose to completely animate her face for those scenes — especially when we do see her full-bodied and clearly herself in other scenes. For the most part, though, I felt as though the effects served the story — especially in making it more fantastical and less Haunting of Hill House kind of horror.
There was a great amount of attention paid to the details in recreating the mansion fans know from the Disney Parks ride. Each room from the ride is realized in detail in the movie, with the addition of other rooms never shown — like the kitchen. But everything from the ballroom to the stretching room get their focus in Haunted Mansion, and it just really adds to the fun of things. They even went as far as to recreate the paintings seen on the walls during the ride, and include specific ghosts from the ride throughout the movie.
The content for the movie is definitely PG-13 — mostly because of the spooky scenes and creepy ghosts. While probably perceived as more of a cartoon to true horror movie fans, Haunted Mansion is really intense for a kids or family movie. It does remain light-hearted at times for sure, but the theme of grief and loss, coupled with talk of ghosts having been murdered and people willingly killing themselves to appease an evil spirit really weigh the content down. There is a little bit of language, but it’s pretty light, with 1 “d*mn” and 1 “p*ssed” accompanying quite a few exclamations of “Oh my G-d” or “Oh G-d!” The only blood shown is when someone’s nose briefly bleeds, otherwise a human skull is briefly focused on (as a very big spider crawls off of it), and we see many ghosts in varying stages of decomposition or ghastly appearance.
Honestly, I thought Haunted Mansion was kind of a sweet surprise. (I actually considered ranking it a tad higher, but my spiritual uneasiness kept the rating down instead.) This is a tough one to outright recommend, but it does make for a decent Halloween-time feature that you could revisit annually during the spooky season. I’m curious how repeat viewings will be for Haunted Mansion, but after my initial viewing, I have to say it’s almost as fun as the famous ride itself.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 10/16/23)
iTunes / Digital Copy Bonus Features
As I write this, Haunted Mansion is available digitally everywhere, but will soon release on disc as well. The special features on the iTunes digital copy include:
Making Haunted Mansion (13:18) is a short, but surprisingly extensive look at the making of the movie. The cast and crew talk about their favorite parts of the original ride and how excited they were to be a part of this movie. They show lots of B-roll footage of shooting on location in New Orleans, how they built much of the inside of the mansion on a sound stage. The featurette continues on to cover different rooms in the house versus the ride, the ghosts, make-up and practical effects. (2 “Oh my G-d”)
999 Happy Haunts (7:00) is narrated by a slightly spooky voiceover that talks about the many, many Easter eggs within the film. It covers small details in the set’s design that matches the original ride, characters named after the original ride designers, reproducing the famous spooky portraits, the building design itself, and more!
Deleted Scenes (10:46) – There are eight deleted (or extended) scenes with a Play All option.
- Carol (0:45) – This is just a throwaway moment featuring Ben on his walking tour.
- 1 Star (0:46) – After the tour ends, we see him settling in at home and reading a bunch of 1-star reviews from unhappy tour customers.
- Harriet’s House of Institution (3:13) – This is an extended version of the scene where Ben and Kent go to visit Harriet’s shop. Upon entering, they hear a cheesy recording of her talking about herself, making Ben want to leave, but Kent encourages him to stay. We then see their interaction from the finished film mixed with new dialog, including where Harriet hears noise coming from upstairs a couple times and leaves the guys to go yell at her neighbor. Ben and Kent decide to just leave her place, and when Harriet returns to find them gone, she makes a crack to herself about the two men being a multi-racial couple. I’m super glad that was cut out because it’s yet another push from Disney, and the like, who can’t just let two people of the same sex be seen together and NOT automatically be assumed to be in a romantic relationship. It’s a joke in very poor taste. (Shame on you, Disney.)
- They Say the Place is Haunted (1:17) – This appears to take place when Ben’s spirit is wandering the spirit world. He encounters some ghosts, including a floating head who doesn’t appear to realize he’s a ghost.
- Between Realms (1:42) – Ben wakes up outside on the ground and walks inside to find everyone having breakfast. His eyes are blood red and he seems really out of it. He grabs a bottle of arsenic and almost pours it into a cup to drink before the others stop him. It’s definitely a dark scene that I’m glad they cut out. (Harriet also says “Holy bej*sus.” Strike two, Harriet!)
- Crump Manor (1:08) – This is more of Ben, Kent and Travis visiting Crump Manor and interacting with the tour guide, played by Winona Ryder.
- Emergency Baptism (1:00) – Picking up from when they find the skull, the three try to hide from Winona’s character, but when she catches them on their way out the door, Kent exclaims that they’re going to an emergency baptism.
- A good head for business (0:32) – In this cute but unnecessary exchange, Kent wants to monetize the haunted house and have the chair ride in it, which Gabbie objects to.
Bloopers (2:32) – This short blooper reel just gives more evidence of how much fun everyone had while making this movie. It’s mostly just a montage of the gang making mistakes and goofing off together. (1 “d*mn”)
John DiBiase (reviewed: 10/16/23)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Vulgarity/Language: 1 “d*mn,” 9 “Oh my G-d,” 1 “p*ssed,” 1 “My G-d,” 3 “Oh G-d”
Alcohol/Drugs: We see people drinking at a party; A man gives his drink to a woman; We see Ben drinking in a bar; We see a dead man holding a bottle of arsenic in a flashback (he poisoned himself); We see a ghost drinking. Another pouring drinks; Bruce pours drinks and Kent has some.
Blood/Gore: They find a human skull under a top hat; Blood drips out of Bruce’s nose; A knight ghost holds its own decapitated head; A mummy ghost looks a little decomposed through its wrappings.
Violence: We see a ghostly figure shake violently to scare a young boy; A knight in armor chases Gabbie and her son out of the mansion; Ben shoots a picture with his camera and falls backwards; Ben opens a door and a storm throws him backwards onto his bed. A spear then flies past him and into his bed headboard; In a diner, a mug falls and crashes on the floor; Water bursts from Ben’s apartment and washes him into the street where he’s almost hit by a car; Ben is chased by ghost with a butcher knife. Ben then crashes into a mirror and falls over; We see kids chasing Travis after school; Ben tries to take papers from Bruce and a sheet of paper falls onto a hibachi grill and catches on fire; We hear lots of talk of death and murders throughout the film. At one point, there’s talk of death by duel and a woman who murdered 5 husbands by chopping them up; A camera is thrown by an unseen force and shatters; Harriet is dragged out of the mansion in a chair and thrown face-first into the muddy ground; Bruce is hit by the chair and dragged outside and is nearly hit by a truck; A hospital bed in the background of a hospital scene goes haywire, moving up and down with a patient in it; Ben has a nightmare where he ventures outside the mansion and sees a lot of ghosts around a cemetary. He thinks he sees Alyssa, but when she turns around she looks evil and he jumps awake; Ben sees his reflection with no head. He wipes dust off the mirror and then he sees the ghost bride behind him. She throws an ax into the mirror. She scares him again and he falls out of the attic and the ax falls into the floor near him; We see a dead man holding a bottle of arsenic in a flashback; A ghostly hand grabs a woman by the throat and pulls her through a crystal ball; Two ghosts shoot at each other with Ben in the middle, who checks himself to see if he’s shot (he isn’t); The Hatbox ghost chases Ben who flees in terror; We see the shadow of a man being beheaded in an animated ghost story flashback; The floor collapses and it becomes a quicksand floor. A crocodile climbs the wall after Travis. The croc nips Ben’s foot but he kicks it and it falls; Bruce falls over with heart attack symptoms; Trees attack a car with its branches as it drives by them; Travis trips and falls; They find a human skull under a top hat (with a large spider on it); Bruce and Kent fight over the hat; Gabbie knocks Bruce down; Ghosts chase Kent, led by the bride with the ax; Ghosts knock Bruce over; Ben kicks a ghost in the face; A ghost knocks a man off a boat.