Haunted Mansion (2023)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/29/23
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chase Dillon, Jared Leto

"Life is dirt. We are all dirt."

For whatever irrational reasons, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her 9-year old son Travis (Chase Dillon) move into a gigantic old mansion outside of New Orleans that's been abandoned for who knows how long. As the title suggests, as soon as they step inside, they discover it's haunted, and now they're haunted as well. At the end of her rope and not knowing where to turn, she hires a priest (Owen Wilson), a spectral photographer (LaKeith Stanfield), a spirit medium (Tiffany Haddish), and a local historian (Danny DeVito) to help, and soon they're all trapped in the house. It turns out that one particularly nasty ghost (Jared Leto) only needs one more soul and then something terrible will happen. Honestly, I can't even remember what the stakes were, so it must not have been that important. Time is running out as this group of skeptics and cons have to work together to banish the evil spirit from the mansion and put the other captive spirits to rest.

While the entire purpose of the film is to invoke references to the Disneyland theme park ride, it's also an unexpected study in grief, and the film takes several abrupt detours into heartbreaking despair. LaKeith Stanfield crushes it as a grief-ridden tour guide and former astrophysicist, who finds hope and redemption in the harried Gabbie and Travis. His multi-layered performance reveals a surprising amount of cynicism and emotional depth, and he does an excellent job carrying the film. An earnest Owen Wilson and eccentric Danny DeVito exist only for laughs, while a refreshingly dialed-down Tiffany Haddish serves as a narrative connection to the spirit realm. As always, Jared Leto is a wild card as Alistair Crump, and it's not clear to me what he brought to the role since his character is entirely CGI and his voice is annoyingly altered beyond recognition. It could have literally been ANYONE doing motion capture for the role, or no one, since he doesn't really do anything except float around. Given the character's range of motion, they could have easily used a puppet instead.

I really don't remember the plot of the 2003 film, but Hatbox Ghost's story isn't particularly interesting and he doesn't make a memorable villain. I would have been much more interested in seeing Constance Hatchaway's story. She shows up briefly in an attic scene, but is sorely underutilized. William Gracey's suicide by poison also introduces an annoying continuity flaw. For the most part, the film looks great and the color palette is gorgeous. However, the CGI looks disappointingly cartoony and Hatbox Ghost looks ridiculous, as if to appear less scary to younger viewers. The film treads softly and plays it safe by being lighthearted and comedic most of the time, and never really crosses into horror territory. It's not a great movie, but it's innocuous and colorful, and the characters have charisma and chemistry.