THE HAUNTED MANSION (2023)
I could have loved the hell out of this, and it could have become a worthy Halloween staple. But…
Before I say why not, I’ll say why: This film is fucking gorgeous to look at. The artistic and technical talent on display is enough to make my eyes vibrate with excitement. It’s not just the CGI of the ghosts (amazing!) or the seamless effects like set extensions and other stuff you’re not supposed to notice. It’s largely just the look. The muted-yet-vibrant colors, the olive greens and dusky blues and burnt oranges — until the vibrant contrast of the ghost, with bright aquas and purples come in to play—and play together so well.
Aside from the visual holy-cowedness (which scores 5/5 stars), the overall tone is fun and balances the spookiness with comedy nicely. The actors do a good job… but…
Ok. I can’t stand the broadness of the performances. Where decent actors suddenly feel like they’re in a high school play. Over-accentuated stutters… “Ha- Harriet?” or whatever. This stilted, exaggerated… weird style is on display in Hocus Pocus at times, but mostly in the kids who aren’t exactly the best of actors, sorry. But Rosario Dawson??? (She’s luminous as always here, and the color scheme suits her perfectly). LaKeith Stanfield is the worst, to the point I phased out a bit during his scenes and instead took in the visuals to save myself.
So who’s to blame? Good actors acting badly isn’t a new thing, but a consistent and similar badness across the board? That’s gotta be the director. While I haven’t seen his other work (and am afraid to now), I have to put the blame on him, and the culprit could be something that really doesn’t matter.
He’s black and gay. While neither should be a factor, I think my earlier comment about high school play suggests it could be the latter contributing to the weird acting style. The performances felt too flamboyant (watch the actors run, LaKeith puts Phoebe from Friends to shame). Could that be it? I have no idea if he’s even a flamboyant person, but that’s what I feel is coming across in the performances, and the actors seem uncomfortable doing it (Danny DeVito is the same Danny DeVito he’s always been).
It might have just been a choice to give the film a larger-than-life feel. But when everything else is so amped up already, you need grounding in the performances. I could be wrong. I usually am. I bet 80% of the audience didn’t even notice.
What’s funny is I can’t stand Jamie Lee Curtis most of the time; she just feels holier-than-thou in everything she does. This felt like leftovers from Everything Everywhere All at Once, but was probably the least annoying performance since the original Halloween.
This is the latest in a short string of recent films that have “the look.” I think the first (at least first for me) was Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. The flashbacks of Tom Riddle were… sumptuous. Not the right word but the right feeling. And taken to feature-length eyegasm in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and The Coen’s Inside Llewellyn Davis. I’m looking at you Bruno DelBonnel, who also did Amélie, one of the most beautiful films to look at.
But here, it’s a different look. Not as glowy (I’m ignoring the ghosts for now) or ethereal (at least they got the contrast in looks right), definitely more earthy, grounded. Muted but rich. Dark but clear (which the director of photography said was accomplished by lighting everything with huge, low-light soft boxes, then adding the key lights—essentially). I could go on and on.
Other things that worked perfectly were the look of the ghosts: the right tone and look and copied from the ride, but given a cinematic makeover. I absolutely loved when the chairs (particularly Harriet’s fan-backed one) carried the folks outside. It was like I was actually in the ride. The way they clunkily slid down stairs and turned around… perfectly recreated. In fact, there’s so much here to love (the ham-fisted grief story for Ben aside—actually all attempts at deeper emotional stories—which might have been why I really couldn’t stand him) that it drags everything else down.
Does it suck as a film? Absolutely not, and will probably get viewed each Octoberween bit not with the status reserved for other films like Trick ‘r Treat or, yes, Hocus Pocus, and that’s a damn shame.