After a long wait, the Haunted Mansion finally gets the film treatment it deserves. Director Justin Simien has delivered a grim grinning hit that pays homage to the ride with a story that feels unique yet hauntingly familiar.
Haunted Mansion Movie Review
Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) in hopes of starting fresh have moved into an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of New Orleans. It doesn't take long for them to realize it is filled with ghosts– 999 to be exact. Unable to leave without the ghosts following them, Gabbie seeks the help of Father Kent (Owen Wilson), paranormal guide Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), historian Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), and medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) to rid the home of its paranormal pests. In order to do that they must discover what secrets the mansion holds which means interacting with the haunts. Some are helpful like the legendary Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) while others like the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) are downright terrifying.
Haunted Mansion is everything a fan like myself could want for one of their favorite rides. This film did a wonderful job of paying homage to Walt Disney's vision for the iconic ride as well as the Imagineers who brought it to life. It balances all the delightful easter eggs and callbacks with a story that feels familiar yet unique. The script by writer Katie Dippold deftly explores loss, grief, and finding joy in a way that speaks to even younger audience members. Aside from the incredible details taken from the ride and amplified on the screen, the performances of the cast make this haunt a blast.
In the early 00s, Disney Studios released two films inspired by iconic rides from its theme parks. One was Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl the other The Haunted Mansion. While Pirates inspired an entire franchise of films and gave us Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, the other was quickly buried 6 feet underground. Twenty years later, the iconic home of Master Gracey finally gets the big screen adaptation that it deserves. Simien along with Dippold have managed to capture the spirit of the ride as well as the ghostly charm that has entertained park goers for over 50 years. This Haunted Mansion works in fun and creative scares while also balancing the emotional throughlines of loss and grief. It's a gateway horror with Disney flair that works on every level.
It is established early on why these people cannot just leave the house, after all that is what any sane person would do. So, thanks to that stipulation the six humans are stuck together. Which is great because honestly this cast is clearly enjoying their time leaning into all the chaos in the mansion. Their chemistry is evident from the start, hitting that found family trope sweet spot. Wilson plays Father Kent with his trademark sarcasm and chill whereas DeVito brings eccentric old-man energy to Bruce. Haddish goes big as usual, making sure her medium is not one to be forgotten while Stanfield acts as the heart of the group, going from skeptic to believer. Dawson and Dillon are equally great at playing the tired but persistent mother and the geeky, socially-awkward son. Each one of them plays well off the others, firing off one-liners, knowing looks, and screams at just the right moments.
Apart from the humor, there is growth happening as well specifically for Ben and Travis. The script takes care to approach the loss, grief, and heavy burden of moving on with a delicate touch. It was surprisingly heartfelt and for any who find themselves still grieving the loss of a loved one, it may even move you to tears.
Haunted Mansion is actually scarier than I originally expected. Now it's not anything like The Boogeyman or Poltergeist but it does earn its PG-13 rating without being gruesome. Any scenes that take place in the mansion have potential for jump scares or a whole lot of nope! In an early moment, a certain hatchet-loving bride plays a devilish game of peek-a-boo, disappearing and reappearing with a blink of an eye. Phantom pains, moving furniture, and a ghost lens all work to set the occupants of the house and the audience on alert. Naturally there is one baddie that is even worse than Constance and that is the elusive Hatbox Ghost. Leto is unrecognizable as the specter that haunts the original mansion at Disneyland but has yet to materialize at Walt Disney World. As a part of the attraction I have always been fascinated by, I felt like Leto was perfect in the role.
The main characters of this film however are the house and all the 999 happy haunts who call it home. From the Stretching Room to the organ's sounds to the ballroom dancing and the Hitchhiking Ghosts, this film feels like the ride in the best way. Simien (who worked at Disneyland in the past) clearly has a love for this attraction as he replicates the delightful, cheeky, sometimes creepy tone of the ride. Like Pirates before it, Haunted Mansion uses the story the Imagineers created as an anchor. Just like Simien draws out the stylish details and ambiance of the ride, Dippold has dived into the lore expanding the stories of certain ghosts, making them key players to the story and not just impish houseguests.
Although knowledge of the ride isn't a requirement for viewing (this film is still thrilling regardless) it definitely is a love letter to everyone who has ever settled into a Doom Buggy. Fans can't help but grin when they see the countless easter eggs, wickedly vivid visuals, and hear that beautiful score. Special effects courtesy of DNEG and Industrial Light & Magic truly bring the Haunted Mansion to life. It's firing on all signature haunted house cylinders but with just that little extra bit of magic that has made the ride a staple for park goers since it opened in August 1969.
Ultimately, Haunted Mansion was everything I could have wanted for one of my favorite rides. It celebrates the storied history of the attraction making it feel like the ride in all the best ways. However it never veers so far into the past that it forgets to tell its own stories. Dynamic performances, memorable haunts, and just the right amount of scare make this one spooky fun night at the movies. I know I will be hurrying back for another excursion through the mansion. Lucky enough you don't need a death certificate to watch it again.
Haunted Mansion is in theaters on July 28. It is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and scary action with a runtime of 2 hours and 2 minutes.