Home » ‘Haunted Mansion’ Review – A Spookless Mess

‘Haunted Mansion’ Review – A Spookless Mess

by A. Felicia Wade
Jamie Lee Curtis stars as the head of Madame Leota in a blue crystal ball in the 2023 HAUNTED MANSION movie.

Welcome foolish readers to the Haunted Mansion. The popular Disneyland ride once again receives a big-screen movie adaptation 20 years after The Haunted Mansion (2003), starring Eddie Murphy, disappointed audiences. Fans complained that it wasn’t true to the theme park ride, some even calling it dreadful. So why make another film based on the IP? Well, Disney has been mining its content library for potential new franchises for years now. When it comes to adapting Disneyland rides, this model has proved time and time again that it’s not successful – Tomorrowland, Jungle Cruise, etc. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is the only one to ever find huge success. And to little surprise, this isn’t going to change with 2023’s Haunted Mansion.

Set in New Orleans, Haunted Mansion (2023) follows a once astrophysicist and now paranormal tour guide named Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) as he’s hired to take photos of mysterious happenings at a mansion on the outskirts of town. His special invention, a camera that can detect dark matter, is the only way to capture solid proof of ghosts. The mansion is newly owned by single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her 9-year-old son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), who were hoping to turn it into a Bed and Breakfast Inn. They initially enlisted the help of Father Kent (Owen Wilson), but the priest needs to assemble a bigger team to fully unlock the secrets that lie within the mansion. A psychic medium named Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and the college professor/historian Bruce (Danny DeVito) round up the team.

Right from the start, this seems like a movie a lot of us have already seen before. As the ghosts and ghouls of the haunted mansion begin to reveal themselves, all parties involved just want to escape in one piece. For a film that is based on a spooky theme park ride, there are surprisingly not that many haunts. This is evidently a movie for children, but even the surface-level scares and thrills fall flat. The production design is as close as it gets to the ride, which sets a great tone and atmosphere… that is until all the characters open their mouths and start talking.

Directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair) and written by Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation, 2016’s Ghostbusters), Haunted Mansion (2023) boasts a stacked cast of comedic geniuses, including Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota. Since this adaptation is light on horror, you would then expect the comedy to do the heavy lifting with such a great cast on display, right? Unfortunately, the humor is mixed at best, often going too tongue-in-cheek for the sake of getting an easy laugh. There’s a baffling amount of big box store name-dropping, from Zillo to Target to Amazon, all while characters are literally surrounded by ghosts and trying to solve the main mystery. A character will be on their computer and casually talk about online shopping and so forth. Now, is all of this really necessary in a movie about a beloved parks attraction? 

Jared Leto stars as the evil Hatbox Ghost in the 2023 HAUNTED MANSION movie.
Jared Leto in ‘Haunted Mansion’ courtesy of Disney

Speaking of the attraction, it’s clear this film is mainly made for Disney ride lovers. Classic horror practical effects and make-up are balanced well with CGI for the most part. Haunted Mansion (2023) is filled with easter eggs, some of which may only be recognizable if you’re familiar with the ride. Notable ride references include the portrait stretching room, the self-playing organ, the graveyard, the hitchhiking ghosts, characters like Constance Hatchaway aka The Bride, the iconic purple wallpaper, and the seance room. As cool as this all may be for the fans, it doesn’t make for a movie that really appeals to the average moviegoer. With the titular ride already being somewhat of a niche interest among Disney fanatics, it’s hard to imagine this movie will win many audiences over purely based on its nostalgia and fan service.

Haunted Mansion (2023) has a laundry list of cameos and small parts. Daniel Levy, Hasan Minhaj, and Winona Ryder all pop in for a bit, but nothing long-lasting to make a huge impression. Jamie Lee Curtis and an unrecognizable Jared Leto as the Hatbox Ghost are the two exceptions. Curtis, in particular, brings the film’s best humor and then some. Furthermore, LaKeith Stanfield is the clear standout from the ensemble and tries his best to work with little. Besides all the Haunted Mansion ride gimmicks, there’s a large disconnect between trying to capture the ride’s essence and telling a layered story. It makes you wonder if the IP should be left alone altogether in Disney’s future. The neat Muppets Haunted Mansion Disney+ streaming special from 2021 deserves a good shout-out though.

Haunted Mansion (2023) is a film for Disney fans and that’s about it. The cast does a lot of the heavy lifting to make the film work at times, but it just isn’t enough at the end of the day. In terms of rewatchability, 2003’s The Haunted Mansion will more than likely hold up as the stronger adaptation since that film commits better to a Gothic tone. It’s hard not to feel disappointed with such a beloved property; it seems like it will remain doomed. There are moments where Justin Simien’s vision is clear in the way the New Orleans culture is highlighted and how our protagonist’s touching story of grief hits close to home. Then there’s the odd product promotion. It feels like Haunted Mansion (2023) is constantly fighting with itself.

This year hasn’t brought good looks for Disney with one blockbuster underperforming after the other and more rumors looming of postponing more future releases due to the ongoing WGA and SAG strikes. As the industry hopefully moves forward in paying creatives what they’re owed, Haunted Mansion (2023) leaves us with little to no impact. All we can do now is ponder about what Guillermo del Toro’s previously scrapped version with Ryan Gosling could have been.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Haunted Mansion is now playing in theaters!

Follow writer A. Felicia Wade on Twitter: @becomingfelicia

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