Movie Review: ‘We Have a Ghost’ is a Tonally Awkward Misfire
Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Christopher Landon
Stars: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, David Harbour, Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Coolidge
Synopsis: Finding a ghost named Ernest haunting their new home turns Kevin’s family into overnight social media sensations. But when Kevin and Ernest investigate the mystery of Ernest’s past, they become a target of the CIA.
Recently, I engaged in a strange double feature of Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning 1973 drama Cries and Whispers and Christopher Landon’s newest horror comedy We Have a Ghost, the latter now available on Netflix. The two films surprisingly have a couple of things in common, namely the central ideas of death and grief, but something the films don’t share is the same running time. Cries and Whispers is a finely observed and richly detailed narrative that packs a lot into its brief ninety minutes, director Bergman not wasting a single minute to moments that don’t matter. We Have a Ghost, on the other hand, should’ve been the same length, and yet the movie drags on to an outrageous two hours and seven minutes. The one I wanted to go longer was Cries and Whispers. The one that could’ve ended by the hour-mark? The very bad and empty We Have a Ghost.
One of the pains of watching a terrible movie like We Have a Ghost is knowing it was written and directed by an incredibly talented person. Christopher Landon has been a quiet master at the comedy horror genre, the two Happy Death Day movies being blissfully entertaining, and his 2020 genre entry Freaky a delight, and his best work yet. This is a guy who knows how to pace a horror film, where to put the comedic bits, how to use a gifted cast, and where to dump the buckets of blood. Therefore, I found myself scratching my head a lot as I took in We Have a Ghost, which never knows what kind of movie it wants to be and which has a slow, often sloppy pace that’s made even worse with its sinfully long running time.
The movie begins like a standard haunted house movie, Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and his family, including his dad Frank (Anthony Mackie) and his mom Melanie (Erica Ash), coming to realize there’s an adult male ghost living in the attic—a man with a bad comb-over named Ernest (David Harbour). For about a half-hour, We Have a Ghost explores an interesting concept—what if instead of being scared by the ghost in our house, we tried to profit off it and become social media superstars by sharing the ghost’s images and videos online—and it’s this segment of the story that works the best, one that brings in Jennifer Coolidge as an egotistical psychic. But then the film drops that idea and starts veering all over the place, getting Ernest out of the house, sharing how he came to die, and giving us about seven different endings that are mostly serious, in a film that comes across as nothing more than a silly horror comedy.
Classic horror comedies like Beetlejuice know what they’re trying to be, and they don’t apologize for it. If you want to be a scary haunted house movie, fine, commit to it. If you want to be a horror comedy like Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice, then commit to that. The biggest problem with We Have a Ghost is that it never knows what it is, the tone is all over the place, so it’s hard to ever become invested in the story and characters. Ultimately the film fails at pretty much everything it’s trying to do. In a film like this, tone is everything, it’s even more important I’d argue than pacing and raising the stakes, and with three or four movies essentially battling it out, the viewer is left closing their hand, and grasping only air.
There is a moment at the end of We Have a Ghost, for example, in which I believe the director wants us to be welling up with tears. But the film hasn’t earned those tears. Ernest for the longest time is a goofy-looking jokester ghost who makes dumb boo noises while floating through the air and tearing CGI flesh away from his face. We’re supposed to then feel sympathy for him later when the film turns serious? Imagine if at the end of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton gave us a five-minute scene of Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin reuniting with their living loved ones, sans irony or humor. It would come off as odd, right?
The cast in We Have a Ghost try, but they’re all playing their roles as if they’re in different movies, Anthony Mackie playing things for real, David Harbour trying to emulate Slimer from Ghostbusters, Jennifer Coolidge playing her role like an SNL sketch. And then there’s the villain of the film, which I won’t give away here, but he’s playing his role as if he’s in a terrifying follow-up to The Conjuring. Nobody seems to know what kind of movie this is supposed to be, including its own writer-director. The mix of tones reminded me a bit of Peter Jackson’s 1996 box office bomb The Frighteners, which has elements of horror and comedy and then turns serious in the final half-hour. But no matter the flaws, The Frighteners is always entertaining and filled with creativity and imagination. We Have a Ghost just leaves you feeling nothing.
Christopher Landon is a talented filmmaker, and I want to think this is a mere hiccup in what will continue to be an inspired career as a genre director. Part of me wonders if some of the fault goes to Netflix, a company that likes to throw money at big stars and name directors but then often doesn’t focus on the quality of the storytelling. I’m thinking of films like The Grey Man and Your Place or Mine, which with tighter scripts could’ve been solid entertainments but instead drone on and on with no end in sight. We Have a Ghost is sadly another entry in that group. Skip this tired, overlong misfire, and give the excellent Freaky a watch instead. Now that’s a Christopher Landon movie worth your time.