“You try. You fail. You try. You fail. But the only true failure is when you stop trying.”
Those are the remarks that Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly) had for Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) when he seems to be giving up after failing to get back into the house. It was a scene from ‘The Haunted Mansion,’ a 2003 supernatural-horror comedy based on Disney’s famous theme park attraction of the same name. Although it did a decent financial business at the worldwide box office, the movie failed to attract most critics and audiences at its release. Personally, I thought the Eddie Murphy version was one of his worst movies ever made in the 2000s. But like the quote mentioned above, Disney gives it another try with a reboot twenty years later.
The story follows a single mom (Rosario Dawson’s Gabbie) and her 9-year-old son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon) moves into an old mansion located somewhere deep in New Orleans. After she finds out that the place is haunted, she enlists the help of several experts – paranormal tour guide Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a priest played by Owen Wilson as Father Kent, psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), and history professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) – to get rid of the spirits.
Director Justin Simien, alongside screenwriter Katie Dippold of ‘Ghostbusters: Answer the Call’ fame, isn’t just interested in confining these characters in a haunted house. Sure, there are some spookily entertaining moments where they find themselves being chased by a ghost (The Bride, played by Lindsay Lamb, comes to mind).
But the fun is surprisingly short-lived since Simien and Dippold want to stretch more in their storytelling by giving LaKeith Stanfield’s Ben – the movie’s lead protagonist – a backstory. Something that is meant to be emotionally affecting revolves around him and his lover (Charity Jordan). They were happy until something tragic happened, resulting in Ben becoming an empty shell of his former self. He becomes an alcoholic who can’t even stop drinking during the daytime.
We also learn that he used to be an astrophysicist but has since thrown away his career and become a paranormal tour guide. That he’s not dedicated to his job until he meets Father Kent one day. His appearance gives him a sense of purpose, even though it is more about getting easy pay for showing up in the titular haunted house with a camera.
The latter is a specially-designed camera that can photograph the spectral inhabitants. The haunted house, which has its backstory later in the movie, also reflects his sad past.
Recurring themes of loss and grief are incorporated into the story, but instead of sympathizing with Ben, the movie fails to establish a strong emotional connection. LaKeith Stanfield looks like he’s trying his best to play the role of a skeptical tour guide who can’t seem to let go of his past. It’s just too bad the story isn’t engaging enough to pull at heartstrings.
‘Haunted Mansion’ drags a lot, too, with the longer-than-expected 123-minute runtime overstaying its welcome before it even reaches the climactic finale. The scare isn’t consistent, and the comedy parts, despite having a trio of recognizable comedians – Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, and Danny DeVito – onboard, are surprisingly low on laughs.
The CG ghosts, such as the headless Hatbox Ghost voiced by the sinister Jared Leto, are adequate but unspectacular while the phantasmagorical haunted-house interior, namely the twisting hallway and the stretching room, has its few worthwhile moments.
The movie features Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota trapped in a crystal ball. Jennifer Tilly previously played the role has more fun than the otherwise inspired casting of Curtis acting as if she’s reading her lines off a cue card. If that’s not enough, her head looks like she is badly rendered in a crystal ball. Not the kind of an ideal follow-up for Curtis, especially after her Oscar glory in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ over four months ago.
Disney certainly took a risky gamble on this one as the studio reportedly spent around $160 million (!) for the ‘Haunted Mansion’ reboot. It was a hefty sum compared to the first time the studio did a decade ago at a $90 million budget. Despite spending a lot on production, ‘Haunted Mansion’ lacks a strong marketing push even before the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike takes place.
And the fact the studio figures it’s a good idea to release a supernatural horror-comedy like ‘Haunted Mansion,’ which is better off released on Halloween month rather than potentially getting crushed by ‘Barbenheimer’ double features, is beyond me.