By: Russ Matthews
Over the years, filmmakers have attempted to find horror-related stories designed for the whole family.
From Goosebumps to Hotel Transylvania, there have been examples of successful crossovers that have captured the imaginations of those looking for scare along with their family entertainment. Disney has been capitalising on this element of the human psyche over the past century with the Haunted Mansion theme park ride and attempted to turn it into a film. Eddie Murphy’s adaptation in 2003 failed to scare up any business or praise; after 20 years, can this property rise from the ashes to entice audiences to haunt their local cinema?
The latest chapter that haunts this mansion on the outskirts of New Orleans centres on Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), a widowed doctor who has moved to The Big Easy to open a bed and breakfast. She and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), are hoping for a fresh start, but as they enter their new home for the first time, they realise they have unwanted houseguests. They must recruit experts in the paranormal to assist them in exorcising these spirits that not only haunt the home, but follow them throughout their day-to-day existence. A hodgepodge team forms with an astrophysicist named Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), priest and exorcist Father Kent (Owen Wilson), historian Prof. Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), and Harriet the psychic (Tiffany Haddish). Despite being paid for their services, each of their expected helpers must know that if they enter the house, the ghosts will haunt them until the true evil within is appeased or eliminated. They must all work against the clock to discover the mystery of these paranormal inhabitants and how to set them free from their earth-bound prison.
Dear White People director Justin Simien doesn’t seem to have a ghost of a chance with this production. He attempts to incorporate elements from the theme park ride, provide each member of the ensemble equal screen time, and make things funny while pressing the scare button along the way. What he does manage to do is to take a confined space and make it into a visual smorgasbord of discombobulating rooms. Like the Disney ride, his team works to twist and turn each scene into a veritable kaleidoscope of effects that may distract from many of the problems with the rest of the film. The issues with the screenplay unfold from the beginning as the focus is placed on LaKeith Stanfield’s character, who inexplicably moves from hopeful to depressed. The confusion continues as he is drawn into the lives of the widow and her son since there is no explanation why he is acting the way that he does initially towards them. With this beginning, there is confusion about who this film is meant to entertain, families, children, or depressed New Orleans residents.
The storyline starts off askew, and then as each character is introduced, things go from confusing to bizarre and never truly recover. Admittedly, there are reasons for each ensemble member and the ghosts who are introduced. Still, like the labyrinth aspect of the house, their purpose for most players is never fully explained. This confusion haunts the purpose of the story, also. As the story unpacks grief situations, it is difficult to see if this is meant to be a hard-hitting drama or comedy. Unfortunately, most comedic aspects fail to hit their intended targets, which makes the overall experience bewildering and will leave audiences yearning to ride the theme park ride instead of watching this film.
It is the question at the heart of films like Haunted Mansion and one that people have been trying to answer throughout the ages. Considering the spiritual realm is a topic that everyone must address at different times in their lives. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God answers the notion of the celestial beings on the side of good and bad. Angels, demons, and the Holy Spirit (or by another name, The Holy Ghost) provide an alternative view to much of Hollywood’s expression of spirits. Still, this film could challenge us all to search for the answer.
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. – John 14:26
Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.
All images: Movie stills
About the author: Russ Matthews is a film critic at City Bible Forum and Reel Dialogue. He has a passion for film and sparking spiritual conversations.