The big screen reboot of Disney’s The Haunted Mansion looked all set for director Guillermo del Toro – but it never came to be.

Guillermo del Toro’s reboot of Disney’s The Haunted Mansion – based on the theme park attraction of the same name – was announced ten years ago at San Diego Comic-Con. It was a film that he was set to write and produce but, like the ghosts that inhabit haunted places, updates on the film proved to be evasive. Finally, in 2019, the Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape Of Water director conceded he was unsure the film would ever be made.

Furthermore, on 28th August it was announced that a separate Haunted Mansion film was in the works with Katie Dippold writing the screenplay, seemingly confirming the end of del Toro’s involvement. This begs the question of what happened to Guillermo del Toro’s Haunted Mansion, and why did he drift away from the project?

From the start, del Toro had referred to the film as a ‘remake’ but he also made it clear that it would have no relation to the original, both in terms of characters and tone. The focus would have mainly been on a singular ghost, known as the Hat Box Ghost. An apparition of an elderly man with a cane, he first appeared on the Haunted Mansion Disneyland theme park ride when it debuted, but was removed shortly after. del Toro said that the film was not going to be a comedy – as the Eddie Murphy-headlined movie based on the attraction had tried to be – and that he wanted to make it as scary as the ride. The aim was to make a family film that was both dark and fun.

After the initial announcement, news on the project came infrequently. In 2012 it was reported that a draft of the screenplay had been delivered and that it received a widely positive reaction. del Toro told Collider back then that he thought Disney wanted him to direct the film, but at the time that he was busy working on Pacific Rim.

News to the contrary then arrived in 2015, when it was said that del Toro would not only direct, but that Ryan Gosling was in talks to star in the film. Shortly after, both of them skipped parties on the Oscars weekend in order to go gallivanting around Disneyland together. This only strengthened the rumours of a newfound partnership between the two.

Sadly this was last major news that emerged on the project, and all fell silent until 2019. In an interview with Moviefone, the director was asked about the film’s development and admitted its moment may have gone. “I don’t know if it’ll ever happen”, he said of the film. He also divulged that there were two or three screenplays that he would have happily shot, and that he thought the film was ready to be made.

del Toro is well-known for being attached to films that get stuck in so-called ‘development hell’, and takes the view that a film’s natural state is to not be made. “I believe a movie is real when the Blu-ray comes out. That’s how I know it’s going to happen”, he told Moviefone. Projects of his that have been stuck in development include The Hobbit, which in the end was directed by Peter Jackson, and Pinocchio. The latter, a darkly-themed stop-motion animated musical, entered development all the way back in 2008. It is now due to be released on Netflix in 2021.

Bluntly, though: what happened to Haunted Mansion?

Inevitably, there are many reasons why certain projects get stuck in development, from not finding the right cast to having difficulties perfecting the script. Studio bureaucracy also plays a huge role in whether a project sees the light of day. This is a factor that del Toro brought up in interviews, saying that Walt Disney Studios had gone through immense change as a company over the last decade. He’s certainly not wrong. In 2012 Alan Horn became Studio Chairman, and several huge changes to Disney’s priorities ensued.

Over the next year Disney ramped up its’ ownership of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, buying the distribution rights to all of Phase One. It also bought the rights to future Indiana Jones films, purchased Lucasfilm and announced the Star Wars sequel trilogy. By 2015 Marvel was a full subsidiary of Disney with Kevin Feige reporting straight to Alan Horn.

This flurry of purchases shows that its focus was clearly on more commercially reliable franchise films, a tried and tested format resulting in movies that have definite box office draw. The popularity and potential of both the Marvel and Star Wars universes is seemingly endless. Even when an instalment like The Rise Of Skywalker disappoints, it is redeemed by spin-offs like Rogue One or the critically acclaimed The Mandalorian series. Furthermore, The Rise Of Skywalker – for all its pushback – still grossed over $1bn at the box office.

It’s not that remakes themselves are unpopular at Disney, for over the years many have been released. However these tend to be reincarnations of animated classics, so their popularity is mitigated by their beloved predecessors. While the 2003 Haunted Mansion may have done enough to have gained some fans, at the time of release it was unpopular with both critics and audiences, and a major box office disappointment. A remake of the film is therefore a much bigger risk for Disney, and could partially explain why del Toro’s project floundered.

Now that Disney is in fact rebooting the film without del Toro’s involvement, it seems likely that there are other factors in play. On paper the director seems like the perfect choice for the job. Looking back at his filmography it’s clear that he’s an expert in dark fantasy and fairytale film. His Spanish-language work especially shows his mastery of both the dark visuals and tone needed for a film about a haunted house. However this penchant for dark themes and gothic aesthetics could be exactly what put him and Disney at odds.

The fairytales told by Disney’s animated classics are colourful, happy affairs albeit with some dark corridors, and the remakes have often followed suit. The stories have happy endings and keep scariness and violence to a minimum. Ultimately, the films are family-friendly adventures. In comparison del Toro’s filmography has more in common with the sinister tales of the Brothers Grimm.

In the time after The Haunted Mansion was announced del Toro directed other films, one of which, Crimson Peak, was a gothic tale set in a haunted house. The apparitions found therein were grotesque, blood-red ghosts that really conveyed the terrors that took place in the manor. The film was also very sexually-charged, as was his next project, the Oscar-winning The Shape Of Water. His work is always at its best when he is able to fully embrace his gothic horror sensibilities.

In Disney’s world of strictly PG-13 rated remakes – even when the films are intended for its Disney+ streaming service rather than the cinema – these sensibilities would not be fully appreciated or put to the best use. It’s likely that the studio had trouble reconciling the thought of making a film that would be genuinely scary for a young audience. After all, the last time Disney made a film that had an overtly darker, scarier tone was arguably 1985’s The Black Cauldron. And that was a film that nearly brought Disney’s animation side crashing down.

del Toro’s comments about scripts he’d have been happy with suggest that he’d found a way into the film he liked, that Disney didn’t. The studio’s subsequent choice of writer for the newly-announced reboot is thus interesting. Katie Dippold is an accomplished comedian whose writing career most prominently includes the NBC show Parks And Recreation, as well as co-writing the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. Could her hiring suggest that Disney’s shying away from a darker, scarier Haunted Mansion in favour of a return to the quirky comedy evident in the Eddie Murphy-led original? It does feel that way.

Whichever direction the film ultimately goes, it seems that Guillermo del Toro’s interpretation of The Haunted Mansion is a project that we will sadly never get to see. His new film Pinocchio is due for release in 2021 and he is currently working on psychological thriller Nightmare Alley, so we’re not going to be starved of del Toro movies. It’s just a shame that his take on Haunted Mansion has to be added to the intriguing movies we never got to see…

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