Twenty years after their last attempt starring Eddie Murphy, Disney has taken yet another swipe at a film adaptation of its “Haunted Mansion” ride. You’d be forgiven again for not remembering it, as it seems like all parties involved prefer it that way. And based on the poor reviews and disastrous box office of this iteration, this tradition will continue until 2043, when the time will come to forget a third revival starring a wrinkly Tom Holland.
“Haunted Mansion” involves, if you could believe it, a family moving into a haunted mansion. The humble title of the film is not a sign of modesty, but rather an indicator of its creative reach. A doctor (Rosario Dawson) and her young son move into a dilapidated mansion outside New Orleans, hoping to spin the coding violations into character and turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. But the Mansion has other plans, immediately haunting the new inhabitants with several ghosts, most of whom you will recognize from the Disneyland ride.
To the movie’s credit, it does not drag this part out like many of its horror counterparts. The mom instantly believes her son and they skedaddle out that very night, not making the sunk cost fallacy like most recent haunted homeowners. But just like aunts on social media, the ghosts follow them no matter where they flee to. It appears they want them back at the mansion, but to what end?
To solve this mystery, the mom invites several “experts” to provide their expertise. Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) is a widowed astrophysicist, who leads his wife’s old ghost tour while working on a dark matter camera to capture images of the afterlife he is quickly losing faith in.
He takes the house call looking for an easy payout, only for his camera to finally come into focus. There is also Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) a psychic who squanders real talent flipping Tarot cards at Bar Mitzvahs, and a Tulane college history professor (Danny DeVito) old enough to be part of his curriculum.
But the most intriguing of these is Father Kent (Owen Wilson), an exorcist with that ineffaceable Wilsonian optimism. Not frazzled in the face of his failed exorcism, he maintains a sunny disposition even while staring into the gaping maw of hell. Decked out in a black hat and gloves, he looks straight out of Vatican II-era Georgetown, yet he prays vespers and mutters about in Latin.
That discrepancy makes narrative sense when we learn that he isn’t actually a priest, just a costume-store employee who wanted to help out. This explains the failed exorcism, while robbing us of perhaps the most delightful priest character in recent memory. Considering the candidates are between him and Father Stu, it isn’t exactly a horse race.
The ghosts proceed to follow all the other invited guests home as well, which makes the haunted mansion their new home until they can figure out what the ghosts want. In their investigations, they learn that the original owner of the mansion mourned his late wife so much that he brought in medium after medium to try and summon her back. But a content soul has no reason to leave the beatific vision, so hundreds of more troubled spirits answered the call instead.
The film is decently sound in its theology; not precisely right, but with the intuitive grasp of a righteous pagan. None of the ghosts are truly evil, because those who linger around are stuck in a purgatorial state. The true fiends head downward, and the good ascend. The residents of the haunted mansion are the B-students of the astral plane.
This is why Matthias couldn’t contact his late wife, or the young boy his deceased father: a happy life leaves behind no unfinished business. But an explanation isn’t the same as an answer, and even with the confirmation that they’re in a better place, our heroes still reach out. It’s a pardonable selfishness; how often are our prayers of intercession just an excuse to talk with them again?
But if there is a spiritual lesson to this corporate adaptation of existing theme park royalty, it’s that life is for the living, and death for the dead. Continuing to live and even enjoy life is not a sin against the departed, but rather their express wish. Christ told us to let the dead bury the dead. Which isn’t to say to neglect them, but rather to prioritize the journey while never forgetting the destination.
Responsible parents have suffered through enough of my rambling just to hear if it is appropriate for their youngsters or not. My conclusion, as these things go, is: sure, why not? It is certainly bright colors across a screen, sufficient distraction for a blessedly quiet two hours. It would be better for them to toss the pigskin outside or hear stories from their grandfather, but that is also true for good art and even HBO.
Even more responsible parents will want to know if this is too scary for kids. The movie is hardly frightening at all, but even if it were, your child is made of hardier stuff than you imagine. Mine was a generation raised on “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movies at sleepovers, and we emerged only negligibly traumatized. Your own child has probably inadvertently watched Ukrainian battlefield footage on an iPad over their cereal bowl; a couple hours with ghosts will feel like a vacation.