Talk to Me and Haunted Mansion aim to scare but don't always succeed

They're both scary movies about Black people who see dead people.

Sophie Wilde starts communicating with the dead — and lives to regret it — in Talk to Me. - MATTHEW THORNE/A24
Sophie Wilde starts communicating with the dead — and lives to regret it — in Talk to Me.
Now that the Barbenheimer blitzkrieg has finally touched down at multiplexes all over the place, collectively bringing in more audiences than any superhero flick in the past six months, we can talk about the other big-screen showdown that is currently popping off in theaters across the country: Disney’s Haunted Mansion and A24’s Talk to Me, two scary movies that involve grieving Black folk who see dead people.

Let’s start with Haunted, the — shall we say — lighthearted one of the pair. This is the Mouse Factory’s second go-round turning their famed Disneyland attraction into cinematic IP. Twenty years ago, The Lion King co-director Rob Minkoff did an adaptation (which I actually reviewed), starring Eddie Murphy as a neglectful family man who learns how to protect his brood when they get holed up in a domicile full of ghosts. People of color once again headline the reboot, directed by Black filmmaker Justin Simien, who made a horror show out of Black women and their own locks with the divisive 2020 thriller Bad Hair.

Get Out’s LaKeith Stanfield returns to horror-comedy territory as a cynical, widowed astrophysicist-turned-New Orleans tour guide who gets called on to investigate the paranormal goings-on in a huge manor, currently occupied by a single mother (Rosario Dawson) and her ultra-geeky 9-year-old son (Chase W. Dillon). Along with a sketchy priest (Owen Wilson), a sketchy medium (Tiffany Haddish) and a college historian (Danny DeVito) who is slightly sketchy, they band together to figure out why this mansion is full of annoying apparitions who still haunt them even when they’re off the property. (This mostly involves a bullying alpha ghost voiced by — I shit you not — Jared Leto.)

Chase Dillo (left) and Rosario Dawson find themselves in Disney's live-action Haunted Mansion. - Courtesy photo / DISNEY. © 2023 DISNEY ENTERPRISES INC.
Courtesy photo / DISNEY. © 2023 DISNEY ENTERPRISES INC.
Chase Dillo (left) and Rosario Dawson find themselves in Disney's live-action Haunted Mansion.

Simien amps up the heavily CGI-ed shenanigans, turning the mansion into an even-more-incessantly dark ride than the dark ride it’s based on. Unfortunately, the mansion is more interesting than the humans Simien and screenwriter Katie Dippold (who co-wrote that all-female Ghostbusters reboot that made many men-children lose their shit) trap in there. It’s like the cast was just told to bicker and give sitcommy one-liners whenever the cameras were rolling.

Haunted is oddly paced (you get the feeling Simien is editing the movie as you’re watching it) and oddly populated, as it also features brief, baffling appearances from Dan Levy, Marilu Henner, Hasan Minhaj and a certain Beetlejuice star. We also have Jamie Lee Curtis — continuing her mission to actually be in everything, everywhere, all at once — as the mansion’s resident disembodied head trapped in a crystal ball.

Hipster horror fans will most likely head over instead to Talk to Me, the latest A24 scarefest that people will most likely overpraise to death. Things do start off quite interesting. Set in Australia, this movie has teenagers getting their kicks by communicating with the dead — and having them inhabit their bodies — through the severed, embalmed hand of a medium. (These possessions get recorded for their Snapchat, which I can’t believe people in Australia still use.) One of these kids is Mia (Sophie Wilde), who’s still mourning the loss of her mother, who committed suicide. The thrill of connecting with otherworld folk (and possibly her mom) soon starts affecting people around her, usually in a very violent manner.

Compared to other A24 creepouts, Talk is more straightforward with its thrills and chills. Twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, best known for the shlocky-but-gruesome videos they made for their RackaRacka YouTube channel, get both spooky and serious for their feature-film debut. Along with Bluey executive producer Daley Pearson (who came up with the concept) and co-writer Bill Hinzman, the bros create a supernatural thriller where the cries for help have been going on way before the evil spirits show up. The disillusioned, smartphone-obsessed youth in this flick would rather reach a euphoric high doing something hella dangerous (and cool!) than communicating with their parents. But there is always that one who overindulges, hoping to ease some internal trauma, and slides deeper into the abyss.

The movie goes off the rails in the third act, as the story reaches a bleak, messy crescendo that I assume the brothers thought would be daring. However, it feels more like they just didn’t know how to wrap things up. Before that happens, Talk is one sad, scary allegory on why kids shouldn’t do drugs — especially if they’re going through personal pain.

As flawed as these movies may be, Haunted Mansion and Talk to Me give us the rare sight of darker-skinned protagonists trying to live on after a loved one dies. While one character learns how to avoid becoming engulfed by grief, another gets swallowed up whole. In their own ways, these summer ghost stories present Black people struggling with demons — both internally and literally.

Haunted Mansion
Directed by Justin Simien. Written by Katie Dippold. Opens Friday, July 28. 

Talk to Me
Directed by Danny and Michael Philippou. Written by Bill Hinzman and Danny Phillippou, based on a concept by Daley Pearson. Opens Friday, July 28.

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