Viral Haunting Story Best When Played For Laughs

Mar 8, 2023

In his most recent tenure at Blumhouse, writer-director Christopher Landon showed a talent for making movies fun. His horror-comedies Happy Death Day and Freaky got a lot of mileage out of their (sub)genre-mashing conceits, but the self-awareness was tempered with a lack of self-seriousness, eschewing parody or satire for something purely playful and appreciative. We Have a Ghost, Landon’s new Netflix adaptation of Geoff Manaugh’s short story “Ernest,” accentuates the strengths and weakness of his work. In place of a slasher sensibility, We Have a Ghost chases an Amblin-esque sense of spooky adventure, at times very successfully. The funnier it lets itself be, the better it is; the forays into heartfelt drama are less convincing. Landon’s latest will be best remembered for its multiple laugh-out-loud set pieces, and with the craftsmanship and performances on display, viewers will likely be willing to forgive its less-impactful stretches.

After a slick bit of setup shows the former occupants fleeing in terror one year prior, We Have a Ghost opens with the Presley family touring their potential new home. Even with the house’s fixer-upper status, the low price tag worries them, but not in the financial position to ask too many questions, they sign on the dotted line. Soon after, Kevin (Jahi Winston), the more reserved of the two sons, discovers the reason for the discount — their new home is haunted.

Related: Knock At The Cabin Review: Shyamalan Delivers Thought-Provoking, Intense Horror

The ghost, a middle-aged white man whose embroidered bowling shirt identifies him as Ernest (David Harbour), unleashes his ol’ boo routine on the teenager in the attic. Kevin, amused, films it on his phone. While he sets out to understand his undead cohabitant, his father Frank (Anthony Mackie) sees Kevin’s footage as his next get-rich-quick scheme (but for real this time). He uploads it to YouTube, and Ernest ultimately goes viral, catching far more attention than is good for the Presleys.

What’s most immediately striking about We Have a Ghost is its tone. In some ways, Landon’s film is very much speaking to today, sporting an online sense of humor and a Black protagonist who feels firmly rooted in this generation of teens. In other ways, it is so clearly a throwback to a certain ’80s and ’90s vibe, with echoes of movies like E.T., Gremlins, Beetlejuice, and Casper, to the point that viewers might catch themselves wondering when this takes place even after they’ve seen references to TikTok.

Jahi Winston, Isabella Russo, and David Harbour in We Have a Ghost

The way it feels simultaneously of its time and out of time works in its favor. Had the filmmakers gone the full-nostalgia route and, say, set We Have a Ghost in the 1980s, it would have fallen in the trap of placing itself in constant comparison with the movies they clearly admire. Instead, viewers are encouraged to see this film as in conversation with that past, and its choice of perspective feels pointed in this context — the subtext of today’s conversations around gender and masculinity, in particular, add juice to the well-worn parent-and-child-can’t-relate conflict.

Also drawn from that era is a real willingness to have fun with effects, and the first half especially plays with Ernest’s CGI in some very creative ways, as the rules of his ghostliness are fleshed out. He isn’t corporeal, but, like in Ghost, can will himself to interact with the physical world. He can turn invisible, and after learning from some of today’s horror films, can control his physical appearance in other, hilariously ghoulish ways. Three extended sequences — two action-y chases and one misbegotten TV segment for Jennifer Coolidge’s celebrity medium — stand out for their execution and comic timing, and will be what most people take with them from the viewing experience.

Anthony Mackie, Erica Ash, Niles Fitch, and Jahi Winston in We Have A Ghost

Ernest also can’t speak, outside some moans and groans, which makes Harbour’s casting crucial to We Have a Ghost’s success. Using just his physicality and expression, he must sell the character and his relationship with Kevin without upstaging the lead, and he succeeds quite remarkably. Winston and Mackie are also worth singling out, particularly in their scenes together, when the son’s lack of respect for his father can be felt in a way that adds emotional charge to their exchanges.

Those moments, however, are somewhat anomalous when compared to the whole. When the narrative is powered by Kevin’s desire to foil Frank’s Ernest-based YouTube enterprise, it is propulsive and engaging, but this strand gradually cedes to a race to dig up Ernest’s past before the CIA-adjacent paranormal researcher Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro) can catch up with them. The more We Have a Ghost makes plays for heart, the looser its grip on the audience’s attention becomes.

This is all the more noticeable in the final act, which makes a misguided attempt to up the stakes with one last horror-inflected action sequence before settling into its version of an “I’ll be right here”-type coda. This stretch doesn’t go as far as to undo the goodwill the film has generated, though, and We Have a Ghost remains a worthy choice for family movie night. But it does suggest that Landon, who is currently set to direct the Arachnophobia remake, is still working out how best to mine this particular storytelling vein. If the path from Happy Death Day to Freaky is any indication, this film could end up looking in retrospect like a stepping stone to crafting even more finely tuned fun the next time around.

More: Disquiet Review: Lifeless Thriller Never Recovers From Its Poor Script

We Have a Ghost is available to stream on Netflix beginning February 24. The film is 126 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for language, some sexual/suggestive references and violence.

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