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Haunted Mansion (12A)

Director: Justin Simien
Screenplay: Katie Dippold

Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson

Review: RJ Bland

To be a little reductive, there are two ways in which people become horror nuts. The first method is perhaps the most common; being dropped in at the deep end. This usually involves being a pre-teen and watching something wildly unsuitable. Maybe you had an older sibling that let you watch A Nightmare on Elm Street when you were nine when they were babysitting you? Or perhaps you sneakily recorded The Exorcist when it was on at 1am on a VHS tape and then watched it when you parents were out the next day. Quite often these experiences lead to some kind of soft trauma. I couldn’t sleep for weeks after watching Ghostwatch (1992) at the age of 8. However, it can also ignite a burning desire to repeat the experience, to get that same rush of adrenaline. Now if we’re sticking with swimming pool analogies, the other method is to let the kid swim around in the kiddie’s pool for a bit, rather than chucking them straight into deep water. It’s probably the most responsible method to be frank and thankfully there have always been films that have offered a taste of horror but have encased it in something a bit more family friendly. These are quite often referred to as gateway horrors. On the more adult side of this little sub-genre sit films like Gremlins (1984) and The Gate (1987) and at the other end you have stuff like Ghostbusters (1984) and Goosebumps (2015). Disney’s latest feature, Haunted Mansion, is the latest film vying to join the gang.


Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) is a recently widowed inventor whose life has fallen to pieces since the loss of his wife. In the years following her death, he put all his energy into developing a special camera that can photograph spirits. Whilst the camera appears to be technically sound, he’s had no luck capturing any spooks on it though. When we join him in the present day, he’s given up his promising career and has become bitter and reclusive, instead earning just enough money conducting walking tours around New Orleans. One day he receives a visit from a rather unorthodox priest named Father Kent (Owen Wilson). Kent asks Ben to help him with a case he is working on. A woman named Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son are convinced that the huge creepy mansion they’ve just moved into is haunted by numerous entities. Kent wants Ben to pay them a visit and take some snaps with his fancy camera. Ben has no interest until Kent tells him how much money he’ll earn for the one-off visit. Ben agrees to head out to the mansion but when he gets there, Gabbie warns him that his life will change once he steps into the house. Ben scoffs at the idea but sure enough, his world is soon turned upside down…


Haunted Mansion is based on the famous Disney ride of the same name (well nearly, it’s called The Haunted Mansion). It’s been running for over 50 years now and fans will already know that we already had a movie adaptation of the ride back in 2003, starring Eddie Murphy and produced by Disney. That was a bit of a mixed bag to say the least so it’s not a huge surprise that Disney decided to reboot it. Now we haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing the actual ride itself so can in no way comment on just how successful Justin Simien’s update is at capturing that vibe but we can say that it’s a perfectly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours this summer if you’re looking for something light and frothy.


The plot itself is rather inconsequential and at times, a bit vague. There are a lot of characters in Haunted Mansion and a plenty of ghosts too, the result of which is a narrative that sometimes goes a bit wayward. But most viewers are not going to be here for a gripping, twisty, tense narrative. This is a kids movie after all. Instead, it relies on its quirky characters (and a great cast) to do much of the heavy lifting. LaKeith Stanfield’s Ben is the cynical set of eyes needed to keep the whole thing from descending into absolute farce too soon. Wilson offers his usual irreverent brand of comedy and Danny DeVito injects some madcap energy. Rosario Dawson and her son are sort of playing it straight whilst Jamie Lee Curtis is absolutely not and is as ostentatious as you’d expect as the medium who has been trapped inside a crystal ball for hundreds of years. This kooky collection of characters are fun to be around for sure, but there’s probably one too many of them for us to really get to know any of them.


Tonally, it generally gets things right. Sure, it’s predominantly an adventure comedy but there are some nice spooky visuals, and the general aesthetic of the mansion is pure gothic horror. And as it’s a Disney film, we obviously get a bit of focus on themes like tragedy and loss and grief. To the film’s credit, these scenes are not overblown and are handled carefully and sensitively. Haunted Mansion may be a family romp, but it’s got a bit of heart underneath its glossy façade. Will you remember it in five years? Probably not. But it’s a fun and undemanding watch on a summer afternoon.

Although it doesn’t bring anything particularly new or exciting to gateway horror, Haunted Mansion manages to hit the right comedic and horror notes and makes for a satisfyingly enjoyable ride.
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