Perusing the cast list for Disney's Haunted Mansion, you may be fooled, as I was, into expecting a fair degree of fun from this gentle horror comedy. I mean, come on: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Levy … . Even the involvement of Jared Leto wasn't enough to dampen by anticipation. But if you take one step beyond the promise of that assemblage and ask yourself “Are these distinctive talents going to blend?”, you'll have some idea of the inherent disappointment in director Justin Simien's “adaptation” of the popular theme-park attraction. In short: No, the actors aren't going to blend. In somewhat-longer: And they desperately needed to, because there's literally nothing of interest beyond what the performers might conceivably – and largely don't – provide.
Those with long memories and a peculiar fondness for crummy Eddie Murphy comedies may recall that Haunted Mansion was previously committed to film – in the same year as Disney's franchise-starter Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, no less! – back in 2003. Because there's no property that the Mouse House won't happily run into the ground, it's apparently time for a redo. To be fair, though, Simien's and screenwriter Katie Dippold's conceit initially boasts a catchier hook than the one from two decades prior. Here, Rosario Dawson's single mom and her tween son (a winning Chase W. Dillon) acquire a dilapidated New Orleans mansion they found on Zillow, which Mom hopes to turn into an upscale B&B. Turns out – spoiler alert! – it's full o' ghosts, and anyone who enters the place, even after trying to escape, is forced to return and remain there. That includes Stanfield's grieving astrophysicist, Haddish's offbeat psychic, Wilson's questionable priest, and DeVito's agitated historian, all of whom try to determine the supernatural goings-on while Dawson's proprietor gives them places to sleep and food in the morning. Despite the caveats attached, she finally has the bed-and-breakfast she always wanted!
This is a moderately clever premise for the reboot of a 20-year-old movie based on a theme-park destination that, the last time I visited, reuired an E Ticket to enter. If only Simien's film were consistently funny or scary … and I quickly gave up hope on scary, because it's doubtful that even six-year-olds would be at all shaken by the parade of bland CGI ghouls and goblins traversing the manse's interiors. Familiar images such as the floating candelabra and elongating room with elongating paintings may hearken to their Anaheim and Orlando inspirations, but they're thunderously bland when compared to similar effects delivered by the live Disney experience. The blessedly unseen Leto, meanwhile, gives solid electronically enhanced growl as the nastiest of the spirits. Yet this Haunted Mansion isn't even halfway over before you realize that Leto's is really the only malevolent entity around, and all of the other boo-ing creatures are just as freaked out by him as we're theoretically supposed to be.
Our remaining hope for enjoyment, then, comes from the possibility of Disney's brand extender to succeed as a comedy. Considering, though, the honorable, misguidedly soulful performance of Stanfield, it's actually more persuasive as a drama, which is, like, the last thing Haunted Mansion needs to be. Watching the film's trailer before a screening of Barbie, I turned to my buddy at the preview's end and whispered, “LaKeith Stanfield needs to be in everything.” He agreed. We should have been more specific: He needs to be in everything fundamentally worthy of him. Stanfield is, of course, effortlessly charismatic, and he does score a few giggles. But with his character in constant, teary-eyed mourning for his deceased spouse, Stanfield can't help but be a consistent mood-killer, entering and exiting nearly every scene with his signature performance look: a hangdog that makes him appear like a kid whose cookie-jar larceny now has him in deep doo-doo with his parents. This expression frequently serves Stanfield well in comedy and drama, and he's undeniably touching whenever Lippold has the astrophysicist recount memories of his late wife. The dramatic gain, though, is a comedic loss, and it's heartbreaking to realize that given their sea of smart, funny people, the Haunted Mansion team has chosen to make LaKeith Stanfield – perhaps their most exciting comedic talent – the one responsible for carrying the weight of the wholly unnecessary, unwanted pathos.
Even if its lead were hilarious, though, it's hard to imagine this thing working in any real way, considering that none of our principal performers appears to be acting in the same project. Haddish gets a couple of sharp one-liners, yet her traditionally enjoyable sarcasm is undercut by sentimentality. Wilson is in typical stoner-surfer mode. DeVito is in typically brash It's Always Sunny mode. Dawson, whose film career has too-often required grin-and-bear-it participation, acts merely as friendly hostess – though it was a welcome break from the genre norm when, upon her first sighting of ghosts, she agreed with her screen son that they needed to high-tail it the hell out of there. (For what it's worth, Levy has two lines of dialogue tops, and the ace comedian Hasan Minhaj's entire role is basically presented in the movie's trailer.) As for Curtis, it's always great to see her, even if she spends most of Simien's endeavor as a disembodied head – albeit one with gorgeous flowing locks – in a crystal ball. She isn't, however, allowed to be sufficiently spine-tingling or rib-tickling, and fans are advised to instead catch Curtis in her “Fishes” episode of The Bear's second season. Now that's a scary/funny performance.
While those gathered in this Haunted Mansion don't appear to actively dislike one another, they still seem to never have found a shared rhythm, and I found it amusing, yet also sadly fitting, that the one truly superb performance came from Winona Ryder, who isn't even listed in the film's end credits. Playing the polar opposite of Jan Hooks' dementedly cheery tour guide in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Ryder conducts her tour with grim, all-business detachment and no visible sense of humor – which, of course, makes her all the funnier. Ryder's is a madly inspired cameo, and should have been a guiding light for Simien and his entire cast and crew. When lurching toward the ideal giggly/creepy combo, it wouldn't have hurt to consult a co-star of Beetlejuice.
TALK TO ME
In horror movies, a strong premise, an excellent opening sequence, and an awesome lead can get you through a lot. Directed, in their feature-film debut, by Australian brothers and YouTube sensations Danny and Michael Philippou, Talk to Me boasts all of these qualities, which makes it easier to handle the heavily accented dialogue that would've been helpfully clarified through subtitles and the climax that patrons exiting the auditorium before me labeled, not incorrectly, “so predictable.” But this A24 outing that's terrific for about an hour of its 95-minute length is inevitably undone by its dismissal of what may be the number-one ethos behind satisfying fright flicks: Don't break the established rules. And it's not even that Talk to Me breaks them, necessarily. It just appears to re-write the rules as it goes along, which proves equally vexing.
In the world of the Philippous' film, there's a severed, mummified hand that once belonged to a noted medium. According to legend and gleeful videos shared on YouTube and Tiktok by predominantly teen witnesses, supernatural weirdness will occur if someone grasps the hand and performs the necessary ritual. First they say “Talk to me,” at which point a deceased, usually grossly deformed being will appear before them. Then they say “I let you in,” at which point said spirit will enter the hand-holder's body. And after that, get out your iPhones, because the entity's host will begin acting out in all sorts of outlandish ways, their pupils dilating and their physical self now controlled by an unseen other, whether their command is to unrelentingly shriek or tongue-kiss a nearby dog. This proves to be riotous fodder for the Australians who have camera-phones at the ready, and who understand the other rule behind this bizarre ritual: A lit candle must be blown out before 90 seconds have passed, or the deceased entity will be allowed to stay in our present world, and haunt its inhabitant, eternally.
I loved this conceit. Both a playfully macabre twist on the demon-inside genre and a sharp skewering of those who only experience life through their phones, it provides the sort of laugh-'til-you-gasp entryway that Haunted Mansion should've had, and the actors portray their quivering possession and resulting exhilaration (or mortification) with full-throttle force. Yet the damned rules keep changing. We're told that, after 90 seconds, the otherworldly guest will linger with their human host indefinitely, but only one of the kids who exceed their minute-and-a-half shows any outward signs of possession. We're told that, once freed from their 90-second prison, the invited ghouls will be here forever, and later learn that, after time, they'll eventually choose to go away on their own. We're told that the invited ghosts are random, but then our heroine Mia (Sophie Wilde) is able to specifically conjure the spirit of her deceased mother. When you add the de rigueur visions, mirages, and dream sequences, nothing winds up making much sense in Talk to Me – and that's with our willingness to buy its preposterous setup. At movies of this type, shrieks and cackles are both acceptable, but you truly don't want the workout on your vocal chords to consist of repeated murmurs of “Wait … what?!”
Still, the Philippous' feature debut is certainly more inventive than 75 percent of modern horror fare, and even if we're kept deliberately in the dark about what the kickers mean, the film does open with two genuinely shocking acts of violence that keep you on edge for a good 10 minutes after. Amidst a slew of outstanding performances, particularly expert ones are given by young Joe Bird, who rekindles unsettling memories of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and Miranda Otto, whose eventual rage is preceded by unanticipated caustic wit. (In a throwaway scene I'm thrilled wasn't thrown away, Otto's suburban mom spends two hilarious minutes trying to get her kids to admit that a party is planned for her night away from home. They swear one isn't; she doesn't believe them; she's right not to.) Best of all is Wilde, whose emotional nakedness as a grieving teen is deeply affecting right up until the point that you're more terrified of her than you ever were for her. While I was disappointed by Talk to Me, I wouldn't necessarily say no to a second viewing – though by the time the movie hits streaming, I pray the A24 brigade will come to its senses, realize that the title is all wrong, and make the appropriate change. Why this thing wasn't released as Talk to the Hand is beyond me.
For a while now, it felt as though the most omnipresent profession for male leads in revenge thrillers was hired killer. But I'm beginning to think that the most popular occupation is actually retired hired killer, given the plethora of releases in which some former paid assassin – Keanu in the John Wicks, Stallone in the 21st-century Rambos – tosses retirement out the window and annihilates every nondescript scumbag within punching, shooting, or eviscerating distance. Our latest example of this trend is director Jonathan Sobol's The Baker, which casts lantern-jawed Ron Perlman in the titular career, I'm pretty sure, just for the sake of its movie-poster tag line: “When his family is threatened, the baker becomes the butcher.” Tee hee. I so get it. After the film's mayhem concludes, I'm sure Perlman's bad-ass with flour on his knuckles will enjoy a beatific life as a wholly contented candlestick maker.
With dough-kneading Perlman a onetime government spook or gangster crony – it's never clear which – haunted by The Life He Left Behind, the family needing protecting is his never-before-seen eight-year-old granddaughter (Emma Ho), one of those mute Hollywood moppets whom you just know will utter her first sentence right before the end credits. The family he couldn't protect is his long-estranged son (an admirably twitchy Joel David Moore), who was likely murdered following his theft of loads of heroin packaged to be the go-to drug for every Ken after patriarchy consumed Barbie Land. And after its mostly formulaic opening 20 minutes, Sobol's outing becomes relentlessly, exhaustingly formulaic, with mob goons hunting for the missing drugs (shrewdly hidden in a loaf of bread), the baker hunting for his son's presumed murderer, and Perlman and Ho – the latter an “adorable” thief of credit cards and hardworking waitresses' tips – enacting cutesy-poo getting-to-know-you scenarios designed for inevitable hugs and tears. I was crying, all right, but only because the act of yawning for 105 minutes straight can't help but make your eyes water.
Beyond the sight of Harvey Keitel, portraying his umpteenth Mafia smoothie, somehow appearing more sleek and handsome at age 84 than he was at 34, the only real surprise offered comes courtesy of that sensational character actor Elias Koteas, who gives the impression of a late-middle-aged hired killer who desperately wants to be retired. Even this enforcer's sadistic threats are tinged with melancholy and regret, and Koteas' climactic showdown with Perlman might've been legitimately moving had Paolo Mancini's and Thomas Michael's script given us any reason to care about anyone. It doesn't, however, and all we're left with in this instantly disposable piece of genre nonsense are Perlman's traditional (occasionally amusing) grumpiness, incessantly tired cat-and-mouse plotting, questions about how our hero can afford luxury hotel suites when his business seems entirely void of customers, and some of the most incoherent, murkily shot action scenes this genre has given us in years. The hands-down-worst of them takes place in the baker's delivery truck, where the cinematography is so muddy that it isn't until after the fact that we realize Perlman has offed a goon with a rolling pin. Isn't the promise of that “weapon” the reason we're at a revenge thriller titled The Baker in the first place?