Producers: Dan Lin and Jonathan Eirich Director: Justin Simien Screenplay: Katie Dippold Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Daniel Levy, Winona Ryder, Charity Jordan, Hasan Minhaj, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
After a two-decades hiatus Disney has decided to offer a second movie based on (or at least named after) their spooky amusement park ride, and the 2003 “Haunted Mansion” with Eddie Murphy left plenty of room for improvement. For a while Guillermo del Toro was attached to the project, which suggested that something imaginative might come of it; unfortunately, he dropped out, and instead the new movie was written by Katie Dippold, whose previous efforts included “The Heat,” the “Ghostbusters” reboot and “Snatch,” and proves no better than they were. The blandly inoffensive CGI extravaganza is certainly a far cry from the sharpness of director Justin Simien’s earlier “Dear White People.”
The movie stars LaKeith Stanfield, forced to careen from morose depression to slapstick comedy, who plays Ben Matthias, an astrophysicist turned surly New Orleans tour guide irritated by customers always asking whether someplace is haunted or not. He snaps that there are no such things as ghosts, his certainty buttressed by the fact that a special camera he’s invented, which would show spirits if they existed, has never captured one. He is nonetheless haunted in a different way by the memory of his wife Alyssa (Charity Jordan), whom he’s shown meeting cute early on but who was killed in an accident—and whom he’d vainly hoped to see again via his device.
Ben is visited one day by Kent (Owen Wilson), a befuddled priest who offers him quick cash for coming to a mansion outside the city whose new owner, single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) is troubled, along with her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), by ghosts and wants Ben to use his camera to document their presence. He goes for the money, but only pretends to take photos since the camera battery is dead, simply declaring that the pictures showed nothing amiss.
Unfortunately he finds that his lie comes home to roost literally: he’s followed back to his place by one of the spirits—that of a sea captain—who torments him with visions of floods. Father Ken explains that’s par for the course for those who visit the mansion, which is why people always return to it as virtual hostages. Soon Ben and Kent are back with Gabbie and Travis, to be joined by Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a self-promoting psychic called in to help uncover the truth about the place’s past and present, and Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), a Tulane University professor who’s spent his career studying the region’s haunted houses, but has never visited the infamous Gracey Mansion before. Their investigations eventually involve one of the house’s hundreds of spirits, Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), a famous medium whose head now resides captive in her own crystal ball.
The villain whom all the other ghosts fear is ultimately revealed as The Hatbox Ghost (voiced by Jared Leto without distinction, perhaps exhausted by his vocal exertions as Paolo Gucci), a tall, sinister fellow of vaguely Dickensian appearance so called because he carries his glowing severed head around in a resembling a lantern. In the end our not-so-intrepid heroes identify him as Alistair Crump, whose cruel human years are being followed by an equally horrible afterlife in which he’s been collecting souls in expectation of establishing evil dominion over everything. And he needs only one more to succeed. But it must be the soul of a willing victim.
Quite frankly the explanation Dippold has cobbled together for all the creepy goings-on is pretty lame, but it all leads up to one of those orgies of CGI effects, with small armies of spectral creatures doing battle with one another while Crump sneers and guffaws over the mayhem and great chasms open in the earth. Here as elsewhere Haddish and DeVito provide the high-octane comic shenanigans, mitigated in some measure by Wilson’s mellower, dude-ish brand of humor and Curtis’ matter-of-fact pronouncements, while Stanfield, still mourning for Alyssa, and Dillon, aching over the loss of his dad, provide the more serious side as the ones who might be tempted by the ghost’s promises. Dawson, as has been the case from the start, pretty much disappears into the background, with the indication of romance between Gabbie and Ben coming about as little more than an afterthought, while cameos by the likes of Hasan Minhaj, Winona Ryder, and Dan Levy add little.
The biggest weakness of this “Haunted Mansion” lies in the limp script’s labored plot and largely laugh-free dialogue, which hobble the best efforts of the cast. But the film is also technically disappointing, with effects that resemble those found in Disney’s similar recent efforts—like the straight-to-streaming “Hocus Pocus 2.” But Darren Gilford’s production design is elaborate, and Jeffrey Waldron’s widescreen cinematography has plenty of sheen. Phillip J. Bartell’s editing can’t bring much verve to the episodic narrative (or the overblown finale), and Kris Bowers’ score tries too hard to punch things up.
There are those who have fond memories of the amusement park ride, and for them the references to it in this “Haunted Mansion” may be enough. But for others it will be just another Mouse House misfire. Maybe they’ll get it right in 2043.