Review: Solid conclusion can’t save overlong ‘Haunted Mansion’

Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, and LaKeith Stanfield in Haunted Mansion (Disney)

“Haunted Mansion,” the latest Disney movie based on one of its theme-park rides, is a a mixed bag of a movie that grew on me as I watched it.

By the time the film concluded, I ultimately left the theater with a relatively positive feeling about the movie, but I have to admit, I was positively bored and frustrated through the first half of the film.

I don’t mind a slow build for a more substantial piece of storytelling, but a “family” horror movie needs to grab your attention more quickly than this movie, directed by Justin Simien from a screenplay be Katie Dippold, did.

The film clocks in at a little over two hours, which in and of itself isn’t a problem, but it meanders so long, I thought it would never get to the point. The movie also built no tension while it took too much time to set its story in play. A better editing job and a shorter running time would have served this picture and its wonderful cast better.

Yes, the movie has a great cast that works off each other extremely well. With a sharper script and more assured direction, this movie might have been a “Knives Out” for the kiddie set, but I’m afraid the kids might be too bored to care before this movie actually gets down to business.

Again for about half the movie, the director wastes performances by the likes of Tiffany Haddish, who plays a mediocre medium; Owen Wilson as a priest/con man; Danny DeVito as a brusk history professor; Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, a mom and doctor who owns the haunted house in question; Jamie Lee Curtis as the spirit trapped in a crystal ball, and Jared Leto as the voice of the Hatbox Ghost, who is the main villain of the movie.

They are all supporting characters. LaKeith Stanfield as Ben, a former astrophysicist turned paranormal tour guide following the tragic death of is wife (Charity Johnson), and newcomer Chase W. Dillion as Travis, Gabbie’s young son, are the leads and their performances bind the movie together at the end.
For some unexplained reason, Travis dresses like Don Knotts from his 1966 film “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” It’s no wonder the kid gets picked on at school.

Both Ben and Travis are struggling with grief and an anxiety disorder after losing their wife and father respectively. The film’s prologue is almost touching, introducing us to Ben and his enchanting wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). It plays like the setup to a Hallmark romance, and quite frankly, I might have enjoyed following their story better than the one the film actually told.

Clinically depressed after the loss of his wife, Ben takes up her job as a paranormal tour guide in New Orleans and gets drawn into the hauntings at Gracely Manner by Gabbie, who is hiring experts to try and rid her new house of ghosts. Ben is on the list because he invented a camera that can photograph ghostly beings.

Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Chase Dillon, Tiffany Haddish, and LaKeith Stanfield in Haunted Mansion (Disney)

Yeah, it makes no sense to me either, but Gabbie also hires Wilson, DeVito, and Haddish to help with chasing off the ghosts.

Until its last half or quarter, the movie assaults you with unfunny and uninteresting exposition, taking way too long to set up the characters and the basic plot. Had I not been reviewing the movie, I might have walked out.

However, once the film establishes all that, it picks of the pace and takes you on a ghostly adventure ride that also has a good bit of heart. By the time the movie ended with its whiz-bang ghostly showdown, my overall feeling for the sloppy film with plenty of plot holes was somewhat positive.

I’m more used to films devolving in the back half today than actually coming together as this movie did for me.

While I’d argue the cast was almost wasted, the sheer likability of Haddish, Wilson, DeVito, and Dawson are hard to dismiss. Plus Stanfield and young Dillion have a chemistry together that’s hard to deny, and their relationship does tug at the heartstrings.

The CGI effects that create the scores of ghosts encountered in the movie, worked for me. The replications of the apparitions from the venerable attraction featured at Disney Land in Anaheim, Calif. and at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. were spooky fun.

While I enjoyed the final 20 to 30 minutes of the overlong movie, it wasn’t enough to save the theater experience for me. I’d suggest waiting for this one to come on Disney Plus or just skip it all together. My guess is that it will show up on there sometime in October.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 2 min.
Grade: C-

New in Local Theaters – July 28, 2023

Haunted Mansion (PG-13) 2 hr. 2 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)
Talk to Me (R) 1 hr. 35 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
The First Slam Dunk (PG-13) 2 hr. 4 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
Circus Maximus (NR) 1 hr. 16 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square)

Classic Corner – The Old Dark House

Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart in The Old Dark House (Universal Pictures)

“The Old Dark House” is the seminal haunted-house movie that has inspired scores of other films, TV series, and cartoons since its release in 1932. Though it’s over 90 years old, it’s a far better time than trying to sit through “Haunted Mansion.”

If you want to know the inspirational source for “Scooby Do Where Are You” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Saw,” “The Addams Family,” and many others, they can be traced back to this pre-code flick, directed by James Whale and featuring Boris Karloff as the mad butler, Morgan.

Whale, of course, made a star of Karloff, directing him to fame and iconic status as the monster in 1931’s “Frankenstein” and 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein.”

While “The Old Dark House” isn’t remembered nearly as fondly, its impact continues to be felt today in any film featuring a haunted house or a nefarious villain who traps his victims for his own devices.

Modern viewers might see the film as a bundle of cliches, but it’s only because of the film’s impact on pop culture. The ideas were original to cinema when Whale introduced them in the movie. They only became cliched later.

The film also features noted stage and film actor, director, and producer Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse.

Laughton also starred in the early horror films “Island of Lost Souls” from 1932 and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1939. Both are classics that are entertaining and horrific. Laughton’s turn as Quasimodo is touching and has inspired every performance as the physically and mentally impaired character since.

If you ever wondered how “Titanic” co-star Gloria Stuart (Rose at age 101) appeared in her youth, watch “The Old Dark House” and find out. She plays the damsel in distress, Margaret.

Ernest Thesiger, who gave a standout performance as the mad Dr. Pretorius in “Bride of Frankenstein,” is also on hand as the creepy host, Horace Femm.

Whale’s off-kilter humor and the film’s creepy set design make the movie a perfect backdrop for any get-together that aspires to a ghostly theme.