Many credit Disney’s Haunted Mansion, as well as the mainstreaming of the horror genre and the increasing commodification of Halloween, for creating the modern haunted house industry. And yet, the movies based on the ride will leave you with the same question: Does Disney even understand its most popular attraction?
The Haunted Mansion is essentially a “ghoul tour,” dating back to the 19th century–to Madame Tussaud’s gruesomely guillotined aristocrats and the exaggerated torture porn found onstage in the Grand Guignol. The public has always–and will always–pay good money to be frightened out of their wits. Walt Disney, a consummate showman, knew this from the birth of his career; Mickey Mouse followed his 1928 debut in Steamboat Willie with a trio of horror shorts: the creepy Haunted House, (1929), The Mad Doctor (a Frankenstein spin-off) and The Gorilla Mystery (no less than a Disney Murders of Rue Morgue). Disney revolutionized the “ghoul tour” with technical wizardry: ghosts created out of holograms rather than bedsheets, and visitors touring in motorized “doombuggies.”
And when Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction debuted in Disneyland in 1969, its visual and narrative inspirations were clear. Edward Gorey’s enigmatic faux-British manors, the darkly romantic country homes in Edgar Allen poems, the cheerfully weird Addams Family Victorian home, the hidden seance rooms of the Winchester Mystery House. Disney’s version of the macabre is equal parts funny and scary, with horror tropes ratcheting up tension before the inevitable happy ending. So though monsters live in the walls, marble busts will burst into barbershop songs. Every jump scare is finished with a giggle; every Turn of the Screw fright is broken with a Marx Brothers joke.
For so many foolish mortals, Disney’s Haunted Mansion was a gateway into the horror genre and a treasure trove of gothic inspiration that could easily lend itself to a feature film. But the first movie based on the Disney ride, Haunted Mansion (2003) failed miserably. Eddie Murphy plays a real estate agent eager to put the Mansion on the market, unaware that the Lord of the manor believes Murphy’s wife is his reincarnated lost love. Any and all elements of the Mansion are just window dressing for yet another generic family-friendly Murphy vehicle (completely indistinguishable from Dr. Doolittle or Daddy Day Care). It’s less an adaptation of the ride and more a cautionary lesson about the difference between tropes and cliches; Disney’s Haunted Mansion features the former, while Murphy’s Haunted Mansion lazily relies on the latter.
And even the movie’s few fans can’t dispute its underwhelming impact compared to the other Disneyland ride-turned-movie released in 2003: The Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. The Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion are twin and rival rides, both long immersive tours of scenes (adventure for the first, gothic horror of the second), punctuated with silliness and a kind of exuberant escapism. While Johnny Depp’s exhausting but iconic Captain Jack Sparrow helped make The Pirates of the Caribbean a billion-dollar six-film franchise, Haunted Mansion fans have eagerly anticipated a reboot.
Twenty years later, the rebooted Haunted Mansion movie is here. And it’s clear that the director, Justin Simien, means to avoid the pitfalls of the first movie by being more faithful to the ride. So, at first, it’s not obvious that anything has gone wrong. In fact, there’s a wealth of pleasant surprises; the movies’ overt reverence and focus on the beloved Disneyland attraction, the verisimilitude of the New Orleans location, the innumerable visual Easter eggs (the wallpaper pattern, the stretching foyer, the exiting doombuggies). The film even manages to work in two different Haunted Mansions–the portico-and-pillars Southern Gothic house in Disneyland and rambling Dutch Colonial manor in Disney World. There’s a lot to really like here.
Except that no one, ghost or human, seems to be having any fun.
It’s not quite the reek of failure but it is very much the stench of waste. Take the cast.
If you created an algorithm to cast the most broadly popular, the most recognizable, the most comfortingly familiar faces in Hollywood today: Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson. And A-list actors means everyone gets a five-second back story and future lessons to be learned. Sure they’re all stock characters (the wounded cynic, the eccentric professor, the shady priest, the dramatic medium), each about as dimensional as a poker chip, Yes, with so many cooks in the kitchen, we can hardly keep track, let alone really care about their troubles, (The exceptions are the tart, sly, eternally watchable Tiffany Haddish, and melancholy but low-key charming LaKeith Stanfield), There’s plenty of one-liners here, but little wonder.
And before taking the project, Simien really should have rewatched Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, starring comedy legends Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle. This self-referential homage to Universal Studios' many Frankenstein movies is so tightly written and so perfectly timed that it;s still the gold standard for comedy horror, a love letter to all those campy, classic monster movies and the fans who love them. Brooks, as one of those fans, clearly knows that people go to monster movies for the monsters, so he includes plenty.
Which isn’t the case here. No Disney ride has more lore or colorful characters than the Haunted Mansion and its 999 ghosts. We, the visitors, accidentally interrupt a rollicking party,, an ectoplasmic celebration, a festive funeral. There’s a gentleman ghoul carrying his head in a box, a phantom sea captain dripping ocean water as he haunts, a young lady walking a tightrope over an alligator. Yet this script, written by Ghostbusters screenwriter Katie Duppold, evinces no real interest in fleshing out any of these classic horror archetypes. Instead, ghosts are introduced en masse, as stereotypes without personality–and vastly outnumbered by a ticker tape of product placement (CVS, Amazon, Uber) in case you forgot about the vast scaffolding of commercialization and merchandising holding up the film industry .
Anyway, who can party when the plot is such a downer? Instead of matching the Mansion’s funny/scary atmosphere and sticking with the supernatural silliness, the film includes real death, trauma and grief into the plot. The time it takes to superficially address and resolve these weighty issues would have been time better spent on more human-ghost interactions (or spectral backstories). By the time our (many) heroes face the villainous Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), safely hidden under layers of CGI), we’re too emotionally drained to dance to “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”
What would it take to create a Really Great Haunted Mansion movie? The cozy-spooky vibe of the Hocus Pocus 1 & 2? The surreal edginess of Tim Burton’s early work (particularly Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands)? Light kiddie-flavored comedy/horror a la Goosebumps novels and Scooby Doo cartoons? Or, since most of the Mansion’s horror tropes (the black widow bride, the phantom playing the pipe organ, the gypsy’s crystal ball and curse) live firmly in the 19th century, why not an adult period piece–another Woman in Black, or Crimson Peak? Or even–(dare we say it) another Rocky Horror Picture Show?
But as of now, the best Haunted Mansion film isn’t live-action, it’s Muppet– Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021) that is. Yes, Disney+’s Halloween special is primarily aimed at kids. But it includes everything you love about the Haunted Mansion experience (spectral bacchanals, riotous ghosts, haunted hallways) plus all the celebrity cameos, hilarious songs and silly jokes that you expect from the Muppets. Until there’s a third reboot, it’s still the only Haunted Mansion movie as exuberant and escapist as the iconic Disney attraction itself.