Christopher Landon creates wonderfully odd horror films that defy the genre’s current cynicism. He avoids the pretence of “elevated horror” by expressing contagious joy in films like “Happy Death Day,” “Happy Death Day 2U,” and “Freaky.” Whatever you think of their execution or overall quality, I don’t think anyone can deny that Landon had a great time making them. “We Have a Ghost,” his latest film, is at its best when Landon is allowed to be goofy in a way that makes the viewer smile. Unfortunately, his writing isn’t as sharp as his directing, as the film goes on far too long and through multiple endings, even as it seems content to repeat themes and images rather than building on the film’s interesting ideas. In the end, it’s a solid distraction, which is all most people want from Netflix, but I’m hoping he makes “Happy Death Day 3” before returning to this world.
“We Have a Ghost,” based on Geoff Manaugh’s short story Ernest, begins with the Presley family moving to a Chicago fixer-upper. Father Frank (Anthony Mackie) is struggling to make ends meet and maintain a healthy relationship with his increasingly distant son Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, so good in “Charm City Kings” and “Everything Sucks!”). Almost immediately after their arrival, Kevin is exploring the attic when he comes across a trapped soul named Ernest (David Harbour, giving a silent performance). Ernest can’t talk, but he’s been scaring people away since the 1970s, when he died. Kevin is not afraid. He films Ernest with his phone, and then there’s a viral ghost.
Imagine if there was a real ghost roaming TikTok and YouTube. What would happen? Landon doesn’t do nearly enough with this rich concept, instead having people screaming outside the Presley home, including a man dressed as Jesus. It’s fascinating to see Frank try to cash in on Ernest’s existence by posing as a cultural agent. He even hires a local medium for an encounter with Ernest, allowing for one of the film’s more impressive effects and potential memes from a Jennifer Coolidge cameo. However, there has not been enough done with the concept of what proof of the afterlife would imply. It doesn’t have to be deeply philosophical, but even a cursory investigation could have helped to flesh out this concept.
Instead, “We Have a Ghost” focuses too much on a paranormal scientist named Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro) and her CIA boss Arnold Schipley (Steve Coulter). In the middle of Landon’s film, Ernest, Kevin, and their scene-stealing neighbour Joy (Isabella Russo) try to escape the armed guards and figure out why this poor guy hasn’t fully transitioned to the next plane of existence. Of course, “We Have a Ghost” becomes a bit of a whodunit as Ernest learns the truth about what happened to him, including the identity of his assailant.
Harbour is effective in a performance that could have been all exaggerated mugging to compensate for no dialogue, and Winston still feels like a future star; he’s so confident and natural at such a young age. There’s enough to like in just the two of them to keep teens and their parents from checking social media too frequently while it plays, but it lacks the punch that would make them put their phones down for good. There’s just a lack of urgency, especially in the final act, which repeats ideas and then ends multiple times. This film should be as short as “Freaky” and “Happy Death Day” (and felt tighter).
Even though “We Have a Ghost” sags in places, it never completely fades into the dull background of Netflix originals of late. We may not have an outright winner, but we do have a good diversion.
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