Disney’s track record of adapting their properties to the big screen, be it animated classics or beloved theme park attractions, is mixed at best. For every CNDERELLA or PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN that build on an IP exponentially, there are lesser entries like DUMBO and JUNGLE CRUISE that do not. And for some reason, Disney just cannot properly recreate the fun and spirit (ahem, spirits?) of their parks’ most popular ride – the Haunted Mansion. They’ve tried with various TV specials, they gave it a good go in a movie with Eddie Murphy 20 years ago, and now, there’s a new, big screen adaptation entitled HAUNTED MANSION premiering in theaters this week. And yet, this one fails too.
Why is the beloved property so hard to adapt? In a word? Kids.
Disney’s need to appeal to the all-family market makes for a scary movie with no terror, too little wit, and almost no edge. The ride has plenty of scares, devilish wit, and angsty dread, but the Disney execs seemed to have determined that the film must not have anything too adult so they’ve watered down all those elements that make the ride so fun.
Additionally, other misguided choices are evident at every turn. There are plenty of expensive CGI ghosts, but none of them are particularly interesting. The dialogue, delivered by accomplished comic talents like Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, and Danny DeVito, feels homogenized with even their ad-libs having a pulled-punch quality to them. And any sense of dread or threatening death never feels part of the equation here. Instead, the players get tossed about like bean bags with nary an injury, and chatter by the main villainous ghost (voiced by Jared Leto, though you’d never know it) about wanting one more soul to reach 1000 in the mansion feels like little more than empty talk. And what’s with the awful wigs they’ve given Dawson to wear throughout the film? It’s inexplicable.
Shockingly, the one thing in the film that works fairly well is the lead performance by LaKeith Stanfield. He plays Ben, a down-on-his-luck paranormal expert slumming as a tour guide of haunted sites in New Orleans. Ben is hired by a new resident named Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) who purchased the dilapidated mansion to turn it into a bed & breakfast. As Ben investigates the history of the house, he develops a rapport with both Gabbie and her moody son Travis (Chase Dillon) and there are some charming moments there as Stanfield makes for a low-key but wry leading man. And even when Gabbie’s mansion is overrun by crazy characters trying to fight off the ghosts, including a sarcastic medium (Haddish), a crusty local (DeVito), and a sweet priest (Wilson), Stanfield holds his own.
Screenwriter Katie Dippold has done edgier work with her script for 2013’s THE HEAT and her employment as the executive story editor on the TV series PARKS & RECREATION. She seems forced to use her dialogue to cover a lot of exposition to ensure the kiddies are keeping up with all the twists and turns. And director Justin Semien seems handcuffed too. He created the sharp Netflix adaptation of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, but here he seems overwhelmed juggling all the visual effects and stunts to deliver a cogent or provocative frightener.
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was once interested in doing an R-rated adult take on this Disney property, but my guess is that execs vetoed his idea because it would be too inaccessible for younger audiences. That’s a shame because the ride deserves an adaptation that properly plays up the sense of eerie dread throughout the ride, not to mention its sophisticated macabre humor.
Indeed, the scariest part of this adaptation is how once again, it’s a missed opportunity to bring to the screen a truly effective fright fest. Where’s the horror here? It’s all just a spoof of frighteners, and a rather lame one at that. Children in the audience may find some of it amusing, and maybe even a bit scary, but for discriminating adult audiences, this compromised exercise doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance.