2 out of 5 stars

Christopher Landon wrote straightforward horror and thrillers like Disturbia (2007) and some Paranormal Activity sequels before making a splash with the enjoyable time-loop serial killer comedy Happy Death Day (2017), its less-enjoyable but fun sequel Happy Death Day 2U (2019), and the excellent body-swap comedy Freaky (2020). High-concept horror-comedy is what Landon’s become known for as a writer-director, so little wonder Netflix tapped him to adapt Geoff Manaugh’s 2017 short story Ernest into We Have a Ghost

Frank Presley (Anthony Mackie) and his wife Melanie (Erica Ash) move into a dilapidated property with their two teenage sons, Kevin (Jahi Winston) and Fulton (Niles Fitch), unaware the house hasn’t been sold for half-a-century because it’s haunted by the spirit of a middle-aged man called Ernest (David Harbour). But after Ernest fails to scare these latest homeowners away, he instead turns the Presley family into overnight stars when videos of him go viral and turn them into social media sensations—while also attracting the attention of famous spiritual medium called Judy Romano (Jennifer Coolidge) and a paranormal expert with ties to the CIA called Dr Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro).

We Have a Ghost continues Landon’s interest in mixing genre ideas (first time travel, then body-swapping, now ghosts) with comedy laced with big-hearted drama, pulling from a variety of inspirations like Beetlejuice (1988) and perhaps even The Frighteners (1996) in how Ernest looks and functions as a cartoonish spook. Updating the trope of a haunted family to modern times creates new angles on the situation—like everyone being more excited than scared, then exploiting the situation for wealth and fame—but it’s otherwise a rather conventional mix and let down by several things.

The biggest issue is that the film isn’t very funny. I haven’t read the short story it’s based on, so maybe Ernest is a hilarious idea that works better as prose, but Landon’s attempt to flesh it out doesn’t seem to work. It’s inherently funnier to watch a teenage bimbo relive the same day over and over, while hunted by a serial killer, or for a young girl to switch bodies with a middle-aged murderer, than it is for a black family to become internet-famous for capturing a ghost on film. And it doesn’t help that Ernest himself isn’t a particularly exciting or memorable character, being a rather ordinary balding man who can’t even speak. Harbour (Stranger Things) does his best with the role and gives a decent performance considering the restraints, but it feels like a misstep to have the character remain mute throughout the whole adventure. Ernest ends up feeling rather boring and flat.

Another problem is the disconnect between the horror and comedy, because with the laughs relatively low the film eventually focuses more on the human drama and mystery surrounding Ernest’s amnesia and backstory. It’s a great idea to have Kevin and his friend Joy (Isabella Russo) investigate who Ernest was while alive, how he died, and why he’s now stuck in their house as a ghost, but the film might have worked better if the tone had been more serious from the start. But We Made a Ghost feels so lighthearted and silly in the first half, with the likes of Jennifer Coolidge practically mugging to camera, that the second half transition into a more down-to-earth story tugging at the heart-strings doesn’t quite gel. Although I must admit the climax was unexpectedly emotional and worked nicely, even if it made me frustrated what came before is comparatively trivial. The film should have either leaned into the supernatural zaniness and commentary on YouTube culture, or spent more time trying to move us like a family-oriented Ghost (1990).

The performances are all fine, although Coolidge and Notaro both act like they’re in a broader comedy than We Have a Ghost wound up being. Besides Harbour doing his best to make this work, the standouts are Anthony Mackie and Jahi Winston; the former always a charismatic presence who gets to play some believable scenes as a concerned father, while Winston’s a newer face who makes a great impression as Kevin. And also the spitting image of Spider-Man alternate Miles Morales, so I’d be surprised if MCU stalwart Mackie doesn’t put in a good word for him to join Marvel at some point!

Overall, We Have a Ghost squanders its potential by not finding the correct balance between its comedy, horror, and dramatic elements. The humour’s a bit obvious and underpowered, the horror can’t deliver because Ernest isn’t meant to be frightening to begin with, and the drama only starts to work once you sense the screenplay runs out of jokes and has to focus on Ernest’s tragic past and explaining some of the questions about who he once was. The film is also an unreasonable two-hours long, so a tighter 90-minute cut would have helped smooth over its problems.

USA | 2023 | 127 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Christopher Landon.
starring: David Harbour, Jahi Winston, Anthony Mackie, Tig Notaro, Erica Ash, Jennifer Coolidge, Faith Ford, Niles Fitch, Isabella Russo & Steve Coulter.