A film review by Craig J. Koban March 8, 2023


2023, PG-13, 127 mins.

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

Written and directed by Christopher Landon, based on the story by Geoff Manaugh




Part of me was looking forward to Netflix's new supernatural horror comedy WE HAVE A GHOST, mostly because it comes from writer/director Christopher Landon, who previously made the splendid time looping HAPPY DEATH DEATH, which he followed that up with the insanely silly, but insanely enjoyable sequel HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U.  His latest cross pollinated genre offering - based on the short story ERNEST by Geoff Manaugh - concerns a family that moves into a spooky looking house, discovers that a ghost is there, and then proceed to shoot footage of it and then posts it in on YouTube, which makes the apparition and the family instantly social media famous.  As a more family-friendly inspired haunted house tale, WE HAVE A GHOST has a premise that has so much untapped potential and a very solid cast (especially David Harbour as the spirit in question, in a mostly silent, but effective performance), but somehow Landon can't make this material work, leaving a messy, bloated, and mostly unfunny effort that also lacks in genuine scares. 

The film opens with the aforementioned family, the Presleys, as they're moving into what appears to be a hugely dilapidated new home in Chicago that's clearly beyond being a mere fixer-upper. Frank (Anthony Mackie) is attempting to make things right for his already emotionally fractured and unhealthy family unit, especially after he's struggling to make a living and supporting them all. His wife Melanie (Erica Adh) is supportive, but getting tired of the upheaval in her life, so she tries as she can to make the most out of their dingy and creepy new dwelling. Kevin (Jani D' Allo Winston) is their youngest son, who has a particularly hostile relationship with his father and has become so distant with him that Frank is at his wits end as to what to do to make amends.  Kevin's older brother Fulton (Niles Fitch) is a bit more of a social extrovert than his younger sibling.  During the family's initial day at their new home, Kevin starts wading through the cobweb-covered attic and discovers that a ghost resides there named Ernest (Harbour), who's mute and incapable of verbally communicating with anyone living.  Ernest tries to make himself look scary to the frazzled Kevin, but the latter seems fascinated by who this specter was before he went six feet under and why he's in his new house.  



An unlikely bond forms between Kevin and Ernest, with the ghost appreciating that someone seems to want to get to know him instead of running for their lives at the mere sight of him.  Kevin is not afraid of Ernest in the slightest and decides to shoot video footage of him on his phone, but his family soon discovers his secret new pal, throwing them all into hysterics (one of the film's few hilarious lines comes from Melanie, who pitifully and rightfully screams "We're not going to be like every stupid white family in every horror film...we're leaving!!!").  Kevin's brother thinks that they should upload the footage on YouTube, and with the encouragement of their father, they do and - wouldn't ya know it! - the ghost becomes a viral sensation and the family's channel starts raking in millions of views and making them money in the process.  As the family and Ernest become more and more popular and well known, friction starts to emerge in terms of Frank wanting to exploit the ghost for financial gain, whereas Kevin just wants to learn about his new buddy and piece together a larger picture of his tragic history.  Of course, elements of the CIA's paranormal department start to take a keen interest in Ernest, which leads to one of its agents, Leslie (Tig Notaro), using every ghost hunting piece of technology to trap Ernest, take him back to her base, and study him.  This prompts Kevin into action to secure Ernest's freedom and find out - once and for all - what really happened to him. 

I liked how this film doesn't make Ernest a monstrous presence.  For the most part, he's a poltergeist that looks like a middle-aged man with a truly awful combover that's sporting a 70s era bowling shirt (so, yeah, he's not the most intimidating force, to be sure).  Harbour's casting here is key, seeing as he has this knack of playing characters (like on STRANGER THINGS) that can be both intimidating and goofy in equal measure, and Ernest represents a challenge for the performer because he has no dialogue of any kind throughout the story.  Ernest also has no conscious memories of what's has happened to him or his past life, which makes him a sympathetic character worthy of Kevin's sympathy and understanding.  Harbour is quite good at doing what he can with a wordless performance, having to communicate feelings mostly through facial and body language.  He's well paired with Winston, who's the other sympathetic character in the film and one of the few that wants to get to know Ernest first and foremost, while so many others - including Notaro's wily and obsessed agent - see him as a nightmarish threat.

And speaking of laughs and scares, it's ultimately disappointing how Landon's film is so profoundly lacking in both regards, and principally after his two fairly riotous HAPPY DEATH DAY films.  Ernest is a clumsy and endearing creation, to be sure, and there's something darkly amusing seeing Frank - on his last financial leg in life - exploiting this ghost to boost his family's economic well being by getting high click counts on YouTube and generating gargantuan ad revenue for them.  There's also a would-be funny sequence involving a TV medium (played by Jennifer Coolidge in pure Jennifer Coolidge mode) trying to prove that Ernest is an impossibility, but then he shows up to crash the show.  Moments like this - and many more - are drenched in dull slapstick and have characters acting like buffoons.  There's modest enjoyment in them, but not high hilarity.  Plus, there are rarely moments in WE HAVE A GHOST that are frightening in the least, which further makes the whole production feel that much more watered down.  And considering all of the limitless places Landon's film could have gone to when it comes to serving as a commentary on YouTube/TikTok culture and the effects that real ghosts would have on a social media-consuming world, the resulting effort is pretty hallow and mindless.  Just think of the ramifications of ghosts being shown to society at large, but WE HAVE A GHOST just simply doesn't have time for that. 

Landon's film is not so much awful as it is clunky, flat footed, and grossly negligent when it comes to utilizing his fantastic cast, what appears to be a sizeable budget, and novel premise.  Comparisons to the original GHOSTBUSTERS seem unavoidable, but that film knew how to score big laughs and legitimate moments of terror in equal dosages.  The writing in WE HAVE A GHOST is not nearly as sharp or scathing, nor does it have the same level of creative vision with its wacky material.  In the end, it's a pastiche of multiple past genre films and ingredients that aren't mixed together well: When it's not a family dramedy about dysfunction, it becomes a horror/comedy about a friendly ghost...and then it becomes an on-the-run thriller...and then finally a murder mystery.   WE HAVE A GHOST goes everywhere during its longwinded running time and without much discipline or a strategic road map, leaving it hard for me to recommend as destination streaming viewing.  

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