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Drive In Saturday Sunday Movie Review: Haunted Mansion

OK, this movie really had absolutely nothing to do with David Bowie. We didn’t even see it on a Saturday (though we did see it at the drive-in). Nonetheless, since Bowie has a song called, “Drive-in Saturday” (click to link to a video of the song) I have decided to write movie reviews of every movie we see at the drive-in, at least this year.

Going to the drive-in is one of my favorite things to do. The quality of the movie has something to do with the overall enjoyment of the experience, but much less so than other ways of watching a movie. In fact, since the sound and picture clarity are not always great compared to other venues, there are certainly movies I’d rather not see at the drive-in. But for me, nothing is better than sitting outside on a summer night, getting an ice cream sundae and watching a movie in a quasi-communal but socially distant, if archaic setting. So, I wasn’t expecting much from “Haunted Mansion” as a movie, but it was good enough to serve as an excuse.

And, I suppose, it lived up to my limited expectations. It’s a run of the mill haunted house Disney comedy, aimed, I’m guessing at young teenagers. Its ensemble cast (usually a warning sign) was amusing enough, but the movie lacked both big laughs and big scares. It’s a movie I feel like I’ve seen many times before, however as I sit here typing, I actually can’t think of a specific movie like it. I suspect that’s because the genre really isn’t memorable. Unless you want to count something like, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is memorable.

(OK, so I looked it up— the movie is a remake of a sort, actually the second adaptation of a Disney World attraction called, “Haunted Mansion.” I guess they are still trying to recapture that Pirates of the Caribbean success).

There’s absolutely nothing innovative or clever about Haunted Mansion’s plot, writing or special effects (though, as expected, the movie leans heavily into CGI special effects rather than the power of suggestion for scares). Again, I enjoyed the overall experience, but while watching the movie a thought passed through my head wondering what the pitch meeting sounded like. “I’ve got an idea— a haunted house movie!” Or, “our analysis suggests that it’s been 5.7 years since the last haunted house movie, so the market is due.” Also— why was this released now rather than October? Could it be for the drive-in crowd? The stereotype is that drive-ins feature B movies. This one more or less fits the bill, though the budget was doubtlessly much bigger than traditional B movies.

OK, so having watched the whole thing I’m going to spend a moment to overthink its reflection of the cultural moment. There’s fatherless child thing and a multiculturalism undercurrent. But what I’m going to focus on here for a moment is how the treatment of two characters speak to current attitudes about institutions. One character, played by Owen Wilson is a priest who turns out to be a fraud, while another character played by Tiffany Haddish is a psychic (or, as she reminds the other characters, a medium), who seems like she’s a fraud but actually has genuine powers. The more far-fetched character is the more reliable one, reflecting the current period of heightened awareness of conspiracy theories and the search for hidden knowledge. The fake priest is a stand-in not just for the Catholic Church overall, but of traditional institutions that, when put to the test turn out to be phony.

Inevitably, Owen Wilson is used to chuck out a few Exorcist jokes. If you think about it, though, in The Exorcist, faith and reliance on the traditional church and its priests, who are authority figures, was the path to literal salvation amidst a world-gone-mad. If you haven’t seen that movie in a while, it isn’t just the little girl’s possession that seems senseless. The movie is set in the chaotic days of 1973, and in Washington, no less. There are reminders of the counterculture, the breakdown of social norms and the failure of institutions (think about how society failed Father Karras’s mother). The way out of the problem had to do with going back to the most traditional of institutions, and once that plan is established, its success or failure hinged on Father Karras accepting his responsibility as a priest and regaining his shaken faith.

Haunted Mansion also speaks to current attitudes about faith. The fake priest and genuine medium are used as vessels to favorably contrast faith in individuality, subjectivity and nontraditional beliefs over institutions, empiricism or logic. Even the fake priest ends up helping because others have faith in him as an individual rather than the representative of the Church. At one point, Wilson’s newly self-actualized character, whose name is Kent, confronts threatening ghosts by chanting, “the power of Kent compels you.” The line in The Exorcist is, of course, “the power of Christ compels you.”

The medium is always exactly who she says she is. She never misleads anyone about her genuine supernatural abilities. The others clearly don’t take her seriously until they notice that she repeatedly does exactly what she says she is going to do. The idea here is that the truth is hidden in plain sight and all anyone needs to do to access that truth is believe. She’s the personification of the red pill concept. So, while I suspect that the QAnnon crowd won’t like the movie’s ethnically diverse cast, there’s plenty of Gnosticism in here for them.

Anyway, these things would probably not occur to you if you found yourself watching Haunted Mansion. But without much else especially new to write about, that’s what I got.

Was this a terrible movie? Terrible? No. Actually, quite fitting for the drive-in.

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