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'Haunted Mansion' is a skip, but 'Talk to Me' is a real scare

From left, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, LaKeith Stanfield and Owen Wilson in <em>Haunted Mansion.</em>
Jalen Marlowe
/
Disney
From left, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, LaKeith Stanfield and Owen Wilson in Haunted Mansion.

After a family trip to Disneyland last year, my daughter told me that her favorite ride was the Haunted Mansion. It's long been a favorite of mine, too, an oasis of spooky-silly fun at the so-called Happiest Place on Earth. Given how popular the ride has been since it opened in 1969, it's perhaps unsurprising that it's inspired not one but two live-action Disney movies. Neither movie is particularly good, although the new one, directed byJustin Simien ofDear White People fame, is at least an improvement on the dreadful Eddie Murphy vehicle from 2003.

The always excellent LaKeith Stanfield stars as a moody physicist with an interest in the paranormal. He's one of a team of amateur ghostbusters investigating the weird goings-on at a manor house not far from New Orleans. Rosario Dawson plays a doctor who's recently moved into the house with her 9-year-old son. And there's Owen Wilson as a shifty priest, Danny DeVito as a cranky professor andTiffany Haddish as a bumbling psychic.

Haunted Mansion has a busy, forgettable plot that exists mainly to set up all the macabre sight gags you might remember from the ride: the walking suit of armor, the self-playing pipe organ, the walls and paintings that mysteriously stretch like taffy.

None of this is even remotely scary, or meant to be scary, which is fine. It's more bothersome that none of it is especially funny, either. And while the house is an impressive piece of cobwebs-and-candlesticks production design, Simien hasn't figured out how to make it feel genuinely atmospheric.

The movie's saving grace is Stanfield's affecting performance as a guy whose interest in the supernatural turns out to be rooted in personal loss. I don't want to oversell this movie by suggesting that at heart it's a story of grief, but Stanfield is the one thing about it that's still haunting me days later.

If you're looking for a much, much scarier movie about how grief can open a portal between the living and the dead, the new Australian shocker Talk to Me is in select theaters this week. A critical favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it stars the superb newcomer Sophie Wilde as Mia, an outgoing teenager who's recently lost her mom.

One night at a party with her friends, Mia gets sucked into a daredevil game involving a severed hand, embalmed and encased in ceramic. This hand apparently once belonged to a mystic. Anyone who grips it and says "Talk to me" can conjure the spirit of a dead person and invite it to possess their body — but only for 90 seconds, max. Any longer than that, and the spirit might want to stay.

The possession scenes are terrifically creepy, all dilated pupils and ghoulish makeup. But it's even creepier to see the effect of this game on Mia and her friends, as they start filming each other in their demonic state and posting the videos on social media. Talk to Me is the first feature directed by Danny and Michael Philippou, twin brothers who got their start making horror-comedy shorts for YouTube, and they've hit on a clever idea in turning this paranormal activity into a kind of recreational drug. But the high wears off very fast one night, when one of the spirits they're talking to claims to be Mia's mother — a development that leaves Mia reeling and turns this party game into a full-blown nightmare.

As a visceral piece of horror filmmaking, Talk to Me can be ruthlessly effective; even on a second viewing, there were scenes I could only watch through my fingers. The Philippou brothers have a polished sense of craft, though they're not always in control of their narrative, which sometimes falters as Mia herself begins to unravel. But Wilde's performance more than picks up the slack. She makes a great scream queen, but she also pinpoints the emotional desperation of someone held captive by grief. The movie takes something most of us can relate to — what it means to lose someone you love — and pushes it to its most twisted conclusion.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.