The Specter of Mediocrity Hangs Over Haunted Mansion

Despite LaKeith Stanfield’s master class in carrying a film, Disney’s latest theme park ride adaptation offers little by way of thrills or chills.

One question that film fans will occasionally bat back and forth is, “Who gave a great performance in a not-good movie?” For those who enjoy exploring such topics, allow me to introduce you to your newest answer: LaKeith Stanfield in Haunted Mansion.

As astrophysicist turned day-drinking ghost tour guide, Ben Matthias, Stanfield is everything the rest of the film is not. Sharp, nuanced, and conjuring genuine emotion, the actor is essentially the only presence giving this tale of the dead any kind of heartbeat. When an actor can ring tears and a cathartic laugh out of tater tots like Stanfield does here, they’re playing for keeps. It’s a shame nothing else is remotely on his level.

Mediocre Coffin Support

His supporting cast, including Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, single mom and newest owner of the titular dwelling, Tiffany Haddish as storefront psychic Harriet, and Jamie Lee Curtis as powerful medium and impressive clotheshorse Madame Leota, are fine. Aggressively fine, in fact. Danny DeVito as Bruce, a professor obsessed with the spook-filled abode, and Owen Wilson as Father Kent offer slightly more, but only slightly. The only actor who comes within sniffing distance of Stanfield is Chase W. Dillon. He plays Gabbie’s son Travis as a bullied child who’s gotten very good at hiding his reality from his mom.

Then there’s Jared Leto as the Hatbox Ghost. For those worried about the famously method actor being sunk by, well, the consequences of his actions, breathe easy! It seems he still has a place at Disney, the most family-friendly place on Earth. Strangely, save for a few drawings, you might not even realize Leto’s involved with this thing. The ghost is a CGI phantom with little resemblance. The voice Leto lends it doesn’t call the actor easily to mind, either. That only makes his casting all the more baffling. Are you telling me Disney couldn’t hire Tom Kenny or Fred Tatasciore and get twice the voice performance for half the price?

Here Lies… Promising New Talent

Director Justin Simien is coming off directing both Dear White People—both the film and the tv series—and Bad Hair. Screenwriter Katie Dippold wrote for Parks and Recreation, was the solo voice behind The Heat, and co-wrote for 2016’s Ghostbusters. These are not untested or untalented creators. It seems like a smart choice on the part of Disney to tap these two. Again, however, the results underwhelm.

There are spots of promise. Simien captures a frenetic attic sequence that gives laughs and child-friendly scares effectively. In general, he and previous collaborator cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron know how to frame a scene among the human characters.

However, he seems too often undone by the Mansion itself. He never asserts a sense of geography on the place, which robs the scenes where the building comes to life, twisting and shifting, any sense of grounding. How can one feel unnerved when that hallway leads somewhere else when the viewer never could grasp where it used to go? Similarly, Simien has a restlessness with the CGI ghouls. He darts away from them almost too quickly for your eye to register them at all. When he stops that, he lingers too long, rendering them less creepy beings from beyond and more just average people who happen to be translucent.

Dippold’s script, in contrast, feels frustratingly abbreviated. Two scenes, in particular, seem to be building toward emotional climaxes, only for the film to rush past the moment, a single line or a brief hug substituting for a poignant crescendo. In other places, it is a shadow, suggesting jokes but never coming through with a substantial laugh line or setup-execution moment.

Not Worth Mourning

As the credits rolled on Haunted Mansion, it was clear the film was too bland to earn even a lousy movie stamp. It is the cinematic equivalent of a beige accent wall. No one will be offended by it. No one will be excited. It simply leaves one wondering why put forth the effort in the first place. Yes, Stanfield is unreservedly excellent. But with him at the center, why not deliver a stronger movie too?

Haunted Mansion half-heartedly rattles its chains before losing interest on July 28 in theatres everywhere.

Rating: 5/10 SPECS

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Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse,, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.