The best horror movies succeed by tapping into our collective nightmares. They take the big ideas that haunt us at night — the things we’re all afraid to admit terrify us — and give us a thrilling catharsis by bringing them to life on screen. Great horror filmmakers understand that there’s already more than enough darkness in our hearts, and all they have to do is reflect it back at us. So it was only a matter of time before a brave director took on the one bogeyman whose portrayal has evaded even the most twisted auteurs: David Harbour in a bowling shirt with a bad combover.
While it’s hard to judge anyone for looking bad when they’re damned to spend eternity wearing whatever they happened to have on when they died, it’s worth noting that ghosts have a relatively simple dress code to follow. When it’s widely accepted that you can show up to work wearing a literal white sheet over your head, there’s really no excuse for a fashion faux pas of this magnitude. But alas, that’s what we’re dealing with in “We Have a Ghost.” A family buys an old house in a new city, only to find out that the attic is haunted by the least fashionable ghost of all time.
The Presley family needs a fresh start to wash the taste of the last few fresh starts out of their mouths. Frank (Anthony Mackie) is always moving his family around, but he can never quite find the right career opportunity to get his life on track. Patience is starting to wear thin, and his teenage sons Kevin (Jahi Winston) and Fulton (Niles Fitch) are rapidly losing respect for him. So Frank and his wife Melanie (Erica Ash) decide to pack their bags once again with the hopes that the next fresh start will stick. Their new house is the ultimate fixer-upper, but it still feels like malpractice that the realtor neglects to tell them that they now have a ghost.
When Kevin wanders into the attic after school one day, he finds Ernest (David Harbour), a bowling-shirt clad ghost who appears to just be minding his own business. He can’t talk, isn’t particularly interested in scaring anyone, and he appears content to just silently keep to himself. Despite having trouble fitting in at his new school, Kevin quickly strikes up a friendship with the ghost. The conversations are rather one-sided, but Ernest is a great listener!
What could have been a wholesome friendship is quickly complicated, as so many things are, by social media. Kevin’s family soon learns about Ernest, and their videos of the ghost quickly go viral. In one of the most charming sequences of the film, we see how the news of a real-life ghost sparks a series of reaction videos, reaction-to-the-reaction videos, and reaction-to-the-reaction-to-the-reaction videos from every demographic on the Internet. In a matter of days, Ernest goes from a shy attic-dweller to the world’s biggest influencer.
Frank immediately sees dollar signs. He rolls up his sleeves and starts setting up merchandising deals and TV appearances — after a lifetime of failure, he finally has a cultural phenomenon on his hands. Ernest’s rabid fanbase eventually grows to the point where he attracts the attention of a secret ghost-centric division of the CIA. When Frank is too focused on the money to protect his golden goose from the feds, Kevin is forced to hit the road to help Ernest escape to safety.
While “We Have a Ghost” is one of the worst Christopher Landon movies to date, there are still some fun moments to remind us that the talented director of “Freaky” and “Happy Death Day” is somewhere behind the camera. His whimsically stylized shots and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor are there — who else could pull off a horror movie with such a “We Bought a Zoo”-esque title — they’re just buried under the layers of blandness that drag down so many Netflix original movies.
Landon assembled an excellent supporting cast, but he never seems to let any of them make an interesting choice. Jennifer Coolidge playing a “Long Island Medium”-inspired reality TV host is an inspired casting if there ever was, but the script doesn’t give her disinterested character anything to cook with. And Tig Notaro is always a delight, but her rogue CIA agent amounts to little more than a cardboard prop designed to move the plot along.
The lack of character development is most depressing when it comes to the Presley family. The film is ostensibly about Frank learning to be a better father, but it’s hard to appreciate someone’s progress when you’re never quite clear about what they were doing wrong in the first place. The script is full of throwaway lines about how he failed a lot and was always moving the family around, but there’s never a good explanation for what kind of failure he was. A sleazy grifter? A wide-eyed optimist who bet on himself too often? A lazy bastard who neglected his responsibilities? Who’s to say? That might seem like a small detail, but it ends up really mattering.
Frank’s relationship with his kids is never clearly defined, and he seems to shift from the tough disciplinarian to the fun dad to the clueless dope in every other scene. We keep hearing about how much he used to fail, but it’s not particularly satisfying to watch someone correct their ambiguous implied mistakes. Movies like this live or die based on our emotional investment in the relationships at their core, and Landon just isn’t able to conjure up a father-son dynamic (or a kid-ghost dynamic) that’s compelling enough to power the story.
All of these missed opportunities to add texture start to add up, and by the time the credits roll we’re left with nothing but a generic (if competent) ghost story. If you have your heart set on watching a new release about people who have a ghost today, “We Have a Ghost” will be a tolerable experience. But for everyone else, reading the film’s highly descriptive title is about as interesting as spending 127 minutes watching it.
“We Have a Ghost” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, February 24.
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