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Christopher Landon makes wonderfully quirky horror films that defy the typical cynicism of the genre nowadays. He avoids the pretension of “elevated horror” by expressing contagious joy through his filmmaking in movies like “Happy Death Day,” "Happy Death Day 2U," and “Freaky.” Say what you will about their execution or quality overall; I don’t think anyone can argue against Landon having a damn blast while making them. His latest, “We Have a Ghost,” is at its best when Landon is allowed to be goofy in a way that just makes the viewer smile. Sadly, his writing isn’t as sharp as his directing, as the movie goes on way too long and through multiple endings, even as it seems content to repeat themes and images instead of building on the film’s interesting ideas. In the end, it’s a solid distraction, which is all most people are looking for on Netflix, but I’m hoping he makes “Happy Death Day 3” before revisiting this world.
Based on a short story called Ernest by Geoff Manaugh, “We Have a Ghost” opens with the Presley family moving to a fixer-upper in Chicago. Father Frank (Anthony Mackie) is struggling to make ends meet and to maintain a healthy relationship with his increasingly-distant son Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, so good in “Charm City Kings” and on “Everything Sucks!”). Almost immediately after their arrival, Kevin is exploring the attic when he encounters a trapped soul named Ernest (David Harbour, giving a silent performance). Ernest can’t talk but has been scaring away inhabitants since the ‘70s when he died. Kevin doesn’t get scared. He films Ernest with his phone, and there’s suddenly a viral ghost.
Imagine if there was an actual ghost all over TikTok and YouTube. What would happen? Landon doesn’t do nearly enough with this rich concept and just has people screaming outside the Presley home, including a guy dressed like Jesus. It’s interesting to watch Frank try to use Ernest’s existence as a cash infusion, becoming a cultural agent of sorts. He even brings in a local medium for an encounter with Ernest, a scene that allows for one of the film’s more impressive effects and potential memes from a Jennifer Coolidge cameo. But there’s not enough done with the idea of what proof of the afterlife would mean. It doesn’t have to be deeply philosophical, but even a little shallow exploration might have filled this concept out a bit.
Instead, “We Have a Ghost” shifts too much focus to a paranormal scientist named Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro) and her CIA boss Arnold Schipley (Steve Coulter). Landon’s film becomes something of a chase/road movie in its midsection as Ernest, Kevin, and their scene-stealing neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo) try to escape the armed guards and get to the bottom of why this poor guy hasn’t fully moved to the next plane of existence. Of course, “We Have a Ghost” becomes a bit of a whodunit too as Ernest learns about what really happened to him, including the identity of his killer.
Harbour is effective in a performance that could have been all exaggerated mugging to compensate for zero dialogue, and Winston still feels like a future star; he's so confident and natural at a young age. There’s enough to like here just in the two of them to keep teens and their parents from checking social media too often while it plays, but it lacks that thrust that would make them put the phones down for good. There’s just a lack of urgency, especially in the final act, which repeats ideas and then ends more than once. This movie needs to hum like “Freaky” and “Happy Death Day,” which were notably shorter (and felt tighter).
Even as “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 decent diversion.
On Netflix now.
David Harbour as Ernest
Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Kevin Presley
Anthony Mackie as Frank Presley
Tig Notaro as Dr. Leslie Monroe
Jennifer Coolidge as Judy Romano, the West Bay Medium
Erica Ash as Melanie Presley
Isabella Russo as Joy Yoshino
Niles Fitch as Fulton Presley
Faith Ford as Realtor