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‘Haunted Mansion’ is a Lot of Setup for a Nonsensical Climax

The sequences in the climax are set up for convenience, the threat as invincible or as vulnerable as the story needs it to be.

Haunted Mansion is ostensibly a horror movie, but for this to be true it actually has to be scary. For most of the runtime, this movie isn’t at all concerned with creating scary situations, its characters never really in danger. Instead, the movie concentrates on crafting teenage drama, the main character ultimately more concerned with which boy she really wants to be with, rather than any fear of superb beings. And this would be fine, except the third act of the movie insists on more traditional horror beats. It all feels like a lot of set up that doesn’t actually matter, the payoffs all eaten up by a standard horror threat.

Ella (Janella Salvador) has the ability to see ghosts. Her third eye, however, causes her nothing but grief. Other students think she’s strange, and they bully her relentlessly. And this ability plays a big part in a tragedy that she hasn’t quite gotten over. But this ability really comes into play when she and her classmates sleep over in a remote mansion for a retreat. The house is filled with spirits, and some of them mean to do the students harm. While Ella deals with her first encounter and romance and the constant attention of her bullies, she also must learn to embrace her gift in order to keep people safe.

The danger comes pretty late into this story. The first two acts of the movie are mainly concerned with how Ella’s classmates treat her, and how she’s got two guys that want to be with her. She does get a glimpse of a ghost every now and then, but these encounters are utterly benign. This approach might have worked if the movie ended up being about Ella’s relationships with her classmates, if the end goal of this journey was really to provide a depiction of a young girl learning to deal with her bullies, or if it led to her making a choice about to whom her heart really belongs. But that’s not where this story goes.

The last act reveals its threat, and since so little of the early goings are dedicated to telling the story of the threat, a good chunk of this section has to be given over to clunky exposition. And when the threat is around, the movie never sets clear rules for what the threat can do and what the protagonists can do against it. The sequences in the climax are set up for convenience, the threat as invincible or as vulnerable as the story needs it to be. In its last stretch, the movie really gets lost as it makes a bid for more twists that mainly lead to repeated beats.

To its credit, the movie looks pretty good. The mansion itself is a gorgeous location, and strong camerawork exposes every dark nook and cranny of the structure. But the movie also suffers from awkward staging of scenes. There are scenes where characters are having private conversations right in front of the people they’re talking about. Or there’s a scene where all the characters are bunched up on one side of a living room set, the movie ignoring practical reality in favor of putting everyone in a convenient frame. The acting can be generously described as “for television,” these young actors prone to hammy, unnatural delivery.

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Haunted Mansion might have been better if it wasn’t actually a horror movie. Most of it isn’t, actually, the movie more eager to explore the life of a young woman treated as an outsider because of an ability that she doesn’t want. And it becomes kind of interesting because the film seems genuinely into telling this story. But then the demands of the genre rear their ugly heads in the last act, and whatever else the film was building is pretty much thrown away in favor of a horror climax that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

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Movie Info

Haunted Mansion
Horror, Suspense, Thriller
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