The Haunted Mansion reboot has had a long journey to get to where it is now, and at one point it seems Guillermo del Toro was attached to the title.
First, there was 2003’s take on the franchise with Eddie Murphy leading the charge. Needless to say, the movie wasn’t met with the most positive reception.
Then in 2010, development started on a reboot, with Guillermo del Toro writing and producing. While there were likely many reasons why everything didn’t work out, reportedly, one of the reasons Disney changed directions once again was that the filmmaker’s version was too scary for its intended audience.
A decade later, in August 2020, it was reported that Katie Dippold had been hired to write a new screenplay for the project. After less than a year, Justin Simien was then brought aboard to direct.
Does Haunted Mansion Retain Any of Guillermo del Toro’s Vision?
The Direct’s Russ Milheim exclusively spoke with Haunted Mansion Director Justin Simien about the upcoming Disney movie and if it holds any similarities to Guillermo del Toro’s version of the project a decade ago.
Simien admitted that he “never got a chance to really interact with [del Toro’s] version of the movie,” confirming that the legendary horror director wasn't involved in this rebooted version:
“You know, I never got a chance to really interact with Guillermo [del Toro's] version of the movie. By the time it came to me, Katie Dippold had written a brilliant sort of adaptation way in, and I have absolutely no idea how that development process occurred.”
Originally it was reported that del Toro's take on Haunted Mansion was too scary for its intended audience. Despite that, Simien was “really adamant about the movie not pulling its punches:”
“But I do know that I was really adamant about the movie not pulling its punches because the classic Disney movies don't pull their punches. The classic Disney movies are terrifying to this day. And they're more terrifying as you get older and recognize the existential implications of things like Donkey Kid Island and being haunted by your stepmother and your uncle killing your father. And all of these moments, you know, they make these movies sort of iconic and stay with you for your whole life when you lean into that stuff.”
The director complimented the original attraction’s perfect blend of horror, humor, cuteness, and musical elements, something he deemed “essential to why the ride is so successful:”
“And that was a big touchstone for me. The sort of correspondence between the Imagineers and Walt Disney making the ride because they thought about this to back in the 60s, should it be scary? Should it be cute? Should it be fun? Should it be a musical? Should it have no music? What should it be? They figured out a way to make a blend that I think is sort of essential to why the ride is so successful. So I leaned on that a lot.”
Simien went on to list some horror films that were particularly influential to him growing up, including Ghostbusters, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Little Shop of Horror:
“And then there was like the movies that I grew up with 'Ghostbusters' and 'Neverending Story' and, for me it was 'Nightmare on Elm Street'. That might be a little too horror for this. [I meant to also say] 'Little Shop of Horrors', but these sort of family movies that nonetheless sort of take place in these fantasy horror realities and are grounded with practical special effects and comedic actors, comedic ensembles, movies also like clue. Those were also touchstones that I referenced a lot in communicating the vision for this film.”
When it comes to the scares, lots of the project’s creepiness stems from one key ghost, who also served as the film’s primary antagonist: the Hat Box Ghost.
So, why make that ghost the big bad? Simien argued that “he’s clearly the one that draws your eye” and “it was so clear that he had to be the main baddie:”
“I mean, he's clearly the one that draws your eye, you know, he's the part of the attraction that doesn't even work, when the ride opens, becomes a fan favorite, and then has to be in the attraction because there's just something visual about that Hatbox Ghost, and it was so clear that he had to be the main baddie.”
The filmmaker continued, explaining how there are so many intriguing questions that come to mind with the ghost’s iconic imagery:
“And also because I think, you know, a lot of fans of the ride, myself included, you see his presence on the running of so many questions, like, Who is that guy? What's he want--and so kind of hunting down the mystery of that particular ghost, you know, was already kind of the center of the screenplay. If anything, we just maybe turn that up a little bit, but it was so clearly the right call.”
Simien went on to note that “it was a joy” to “work through all of the mythological possibilities” presented by the Hat Box Ghost:
“… And it was a joy, to kind of like work through all of the mythological possibilities of why this ghost and why 999 And why Gracie and why all of that. That was sort of the bulk of the work, if I'm being honest. And it was fun.”
Haunted Mansion Is Still Plenty Creepy
The Direct has seen Haunted Mansion and can confirm that despite the change of direction from Guillermo del Toro’s scarier take, the movie remains fairly creepy and spooky—just the right amount not to go overboard. There are even a handful of jump scares waiting around the mansion’s many corners.
Fans will likely always be curious about what could have been, however. What exactly did del Toro’s take on the story, which was supposedly set in a heightened version of reality instead of the real world, look like?
Well, the filmmaker actually made a haunted house film in 2015 called Crimson Peak, starring Tom Hiddleston. Perhaps that’s a good example of what the director had in mind for Haunted Mansion if he was allowed to continue with it.
As for the Hat Box Ghost, visually, he’s easily one of the most iconic characters in the entire ride. Pinning the villain role on him was the right choice—especially given his special history in the ride itself.
Haunted Mansion hits theaters on July 28.