In 2003, audiences watched Eddie Murphy drop into “Haunted Mansion” in Rob Minkoff’s poorly received riff on Disney’s famous ride. Now 20 years later, Justin Simien, director of “Dear White People” and a former Disneyland ride operator, is trying his hand at putting the “grim, grinning ghosts” of the popular theme park attraction on the big screen — and the results are impressive.
Simien’s “Haunted Mansion” is a wondrous blend of horror and comedy, tinged with emotional resonance in its story of grief and how we try to connect with those we’ve lost. Anchored by a phenomenal performance by LaKeith Stanfield (“Atlanta”) and a solid ensemble, “Haunted Mansion” is a worthy take on the ride and a sleeper hit for families looking to find a fun summer film.
Ben Matthias (Stanfield) is a brilliant astrophysicist who’s given up on life after his wife’s death. When he’s asked by Father Kent (Owen Wilson) to come help a young mother and her son who have allegedly moved into a haunted house, Ben is skeptical, but he’s swayed by the money to make an appearance. Unfortunately for Ben, once you enter the mansion, the ghosts follow you home until you return.
Right away there’s an air of melancholy that permeates the movie, starting with Ben’s meet-cute with his soon-to-be wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan, “The Wonder Years”). This brilliant rocket scientist sounds wonderful, but the next scene shows him leading Alyssa’s historical walking tour of New Orleans and having a meltdown on how everyone is “just dirt.”
Katie Dippold’s script never forgets the humor, yet understands that it is Ben’s depression over his wife that’s going to anchor the plot. He doesn’t want to be pulled into this cast of characters, yet as the group gets closer, Ben’s arc seems him realizing he has to find life (and friends) amongst the living, not pining over the dead.
Dippold, who knows how to work with things that go bump in the night after writing the 2016 script for “Ghostbusters,” crafts something here that is fun and sharp while also paying tribute to Disney’s ride and finding fresh new ways into the haunted house genre. That’s coupled with Simien’s love for Louisiana, introducing the audience to this world where, as Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) explains, death can be a time of celebration. Cue the images of funerals with brass bands and dancing.
As everyone congregates at the titular Haunted Mansion, that’s when the true fun begins and everything about the Disneyland ride is lovingly rendered by Darren Gilford. The ghosts might scare some of the youngest viewers, but everything is in good fun, and while death is talked about, it’s always presented in a positive, cathartic way. One scene, wherein Ben talks about Alyssa’s death, is beautifully filmed and performed only to be punctuated by a pitch-perfect joke from Danny DeVito’s professor, Bruce.
Simien works well with an ensemble and everyone here lends not just gravitas to their performances, but a heavy dose of empathy. Rosario Dawson’s Gabbie is a character the actress could play in her sleep, but paired with Chase Dillon as her son, Travis, the two make magic. Dillon is a particular revelation, with a Buster Keaton-level of ability to make you laugh. Wilson and Tiffany Haddish as Kent and the psychic Harriet, respectively, give strong comic relief.
But “Haunted Mansion” is ultimately Stanfield’s show, and what makes the movie both spooky and soul-searching is how he plays Ben Matthias. When it’s discovered that a willing soul must agree to become the thousandth ghost and release the spirit of the dreaded Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto, seen only in photos), the audience is waiting for Ben’s grief and anger to make him that person. Stanfield, though, crafts a subtle performance where the audience catches him slipping into revery, whether that’s playing with Travis or being in a buddy-movie situation with Kent. If you didn’t think Stanfield could play a hero, he proves it here.
If there’s anything that doesn’t work with “Haunted Mansion,” it comes in the need to appease those who love the original ride. Madame Leota, the disembodied head who conjures the spirits in the ride, is a must for a movie adaptation. But Jamie Lee Curtis feels pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things, showing up for a few scenes of her inside Madame Leota’s crystal and two outside of it. Her performance doesn’t feel as layered as the other actors.
Overall, “Haunted Mansion” is a fun summer throwback to the likes of 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Inventive fun for every member of the family with a phenomenal lead performance by Stanfield.
“Haunted Mansion” haunts theaters beginning July 28.
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