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Film Review: Haunted Mansion

FILM REVIEW
HAUNTED MANSION
Rated PG-13
122 Minutes
Released July 28th

I don’t know why critics are bashing Haunted Mansion. It’s a really fun movie. The characters are unique and compelling. There is comedy, sarcasm, serious exploration of the meaning of life and death, unexpected twists, and comedic double entendres, and the characters each have realizations or moments of truth. I think that critics and audiences must have been “movied-out” by the “Barbenheimer” Marathon. Haunted Mansion and Oppenheimer both cover similar themes of existentialism in different styles. Both films touch on the study of quantum physics and quantum mechanics. The cast includes four actors who I believe have the most expressive eyes in the business, Owen Wilson, LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, and Jamie Lee Curtis, and of course, there is the house with its spirits, who are the centerpiece of the story.

We are introduced to the story by way of two charismatic characters who meet and fall in love, and we find out later how their story goes. One of them is Stanfield’s character “Ben,” an astrophysicist who has developed a camera that can potentially photograph ghosts, and he’s the one who takes us on the journey. Ben is sensitive to his surroundings and the people in them, sufficiently unsure of himself to be constantly questioning, and thus capable of falling into a deep malaise. Rosario Dawson and Chase Dillon are an enterprising mother and son moving into an old, dark, creepy mansion with plans to give it new life as a “charming” bed & breakfast inn. Hmmmm…little do they know that this creepy house has a long history of anguished souls living inside it. The next characters to join them are Danny DeVito, a history professor, and Owen Wilson’s endearing and bumbling Father Kent, “a priest brought in to attempt an exorcism on the ghosts.” Kent’s exuberant energy brings the team together, and then psychic “Harriet,” played with panache by Tiffany Haddish, summons “Madame Leota” in her crystal ball – played by the extraordinary Jamie Lee Curtis.

There is an undercurrent of grief that balances the film’s comedic take on ghosts, effectively summoning a greater depth of understanding of the spirits that we humans conjure up to help us comprehend the meaning of loss. The film covers death in a way that kids can relate to, in a Day-of-the-Dead style, as the ghosts are spirits of past lives. There are many touching moments in the story.

Production design, makeup, and costumes are all superbly done. Wilson noted that the ghosts in the mansion made his job as an actor easier – “The way these ghosts looked was pretty terrifying and unnerving, and so that was just one less thing to act because it kind of throws you.”  The dancing ghost scenes are fantastic, Jared Leto is truly scary as the “Hatbox Ghost,” Madame Leota’s headdress is a work of art, as is that of Harriet, the soothsayer. 

I don’t know why the Disney marketing team decided to release this movie a week after the promotion explosion of “Barbenheimer.” The studio did a disservice to Haunted Mansion. Perhaps it is not an award-winning work of cinematic art, yet it’s a fun, colorful, imaginative, crazy romp with some excellent performances, fabulous costumes, and different threads of emotion woven through the narrative. 

Director Justin Simien, who made his start in the industry as a publicist, probably knows that the premiere was ill-timed and should have been postponed to a Halloween season debut, which would have pulled it out from under the huge pink atomic cloud of “Barbenheimer.” I hope Disney does an October re-release.

I predict this movie will gain new life as a sleeper hit, and critics will be more inclined to see it for what it is – a richly appointed film about our relationship with death and the spirit world that (oh yeah, don’t forget) spins a tale that illustrates a hugely popular ride that has entertained almost all of us since we were kids.

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which has been the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people.  She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com

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