Friday, June 21, 2024

‘Haunted Mansion’ Never Breathes Life into the Classic Ride

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As I watched Haunted Mansion, I found myself rooting for a film even as I could feel the film flailing. I could feel the talent behind and on the screen, trying to pull it across the finish line. Like a beleaguered visiting baseball team playing the second game of a doubleheader without any rest, the cast and production are trying to make a better film than the studio will allow. That it comes so close to being good is disappointing but also somewhat of an achievement.

Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion isn’t as bad as it could be or as good as I wish it were. However, a summer full of audacious and shrewd editing from Bomani Story’s The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Simien’s Haunted Mansion reminds us all too well how lousy editing can kill a good movie in its tracks. Though I doubt the sloppy editing is the fault of the editor, Phillip J. Bartell, or Simien. The culprit is more than likely studio interference.

haunted mansion
Left to right: Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), and Professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) explore the manor.

There is far too much competence on screen for it to be solely bad filmmaking. The special effects and production design have a lushness and a weight to them that sometimes give moments of a thrill ride. Fitting since Haunted Mansion is a remake of the Eddie Murphy 2003 movie based on the infamous theme park ride of the same name. Still, unlike, say, Pirates of the Caribbean, Simien gets bogged down in paying homage to the ride at the expense of the story. Even though screenwriter Katie Dippold does a helluva job finding ways to blend in homages to the ride while also giving Haunted Mansion themes and ideas beyond a theme park.

The movie’s plot is that Gabbie and Travis move to New Orleans and Gracey Manor only to discover their new home is haunted. Moreover, even though they flee, the ghosts follow them and force them to return to the mansion, essentially trapping them. Interestingly, the way Dippold’s script gathers the characters together has a light-hearted organic quality.

Gabbie saw Father Kent (Owen Wilson) and asked him for help. He entered the manor and is now held captive, so he reaches out to a paranormal investigator, Ben. Ben then suggests they get a psychic, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), which then requires them to find out more about Gracie Manor, which means they need a historian Professor Bruce (Danny DeVito). Dippold and Simien’s adroit gathering of the team is breezy and ingenus in its simplicity. That several characters are not truthful about who they are adds a necessary bit of comedic intrigue.

Of course, the theme of the movie is grief. What else could it be in a movie about ghosts and haunted houses? Dippold specifically looks at the inescapability of grief in the ways that we must face it no matter how much we wish we didn’t. Unfortunately, neither Dippold’s script nor Simien’s direction ever really sticks the landing. For instance, the movie focuses more on Ben (Lakieth Stanfield) and his grief over his wife than on young Travis (Chase W. Dillion) grieving his father’s death. More confusingly, the movie ignores the suffering of Travis’s mother, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) over the loss of her husband. 

The most remarkable thing about Haunted Mansion is that despite the sold cast, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Winona Ryder, Jared Leto, and Dan Levy, young Dillion stands out. The kid is terrific and lands every joke, and though his arc dealing with his father’s death was truncated, he made it work. I ultimately land on the side of not liking Haunted Mansion, but I fervently hope the movie does well, if only so I can see him in more things. He has a charm and effortless energy that allows him to hold his own against the likes of Dawson and DeVito.

The rest of the cast is great as well, doing the best with what they can as Simien struggles to find the right narrative shortcuts and falters in trying to balance the eerie suspense with the kooky fun of an old-school Disney movie. Stanfield and Dawson have a sweet chemistry, enough that makes their coupling a foregone conclusion by the movie’s end. 

Granted, I’m a soft touch regarding DeVito and Wilson. Both maintain a talent of seeming to do little while doing a multitude. Wilson has spent a career finding many ways to turn a simple expression into a prism of emotion, while DeVito seems incapable of finding a false note to play.

Haunted Mansion isn’t unwatchable, and the cast is so likable that even when it’s too rhythmically choppy for its own good, it’s still entertaining. It’s just that Simien never achieves any momentum. The themes and story beats are evident, but he never quotes sews them together in a way that makes anything work. 

Jefferey Waldron’s camera can bring Gracey Manor to enough life that it has a vibe and a life of its own. The effects and the set design lend an eerie character that Waldron’s camera effectively captures—Simien and Waldron pepper Haunted Mansion with several scenes that are positively brimming with imagination and visual vivacity. Movies with this many visual effects can often feel lifeless or too glossy. Simien and Waldron strike a balance allowing the surreal to seem real enough, capturing the atmosphere of New Orleans. Still, other times Haunted Mansion feels too sterile, not immersed enough, as if we are observers and not participants. 

haunted mansion
Chase W. Dillon as Travis nearly walks away with the movie.

I suspect studio meddling; perhaps they wanted more nods to the ride at the expense of a few needed character beats. All I know is that I laughed more than a few times, but I also never found myself all that invested in anything. I waited for the movie to focus, hit its stride, and finally come together. Instead, I found myself watching a climax in that I intellectually understood what was happening but emotionally felt like they skipped a few steps. 

Haunted Mansion is that rare beast, a well-made movie that isn’t very good. All the pieces are there, and the talent and effort are self-evident, but the final product still feels lacking.

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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