Few genre filmmakers seem to be having as much fun these days as Christopher Landon, a horror-comedy maestro who’s spent the last six years delivering instant classics like Happy Death Day and Freaky while mastering the balance between high-concept fun and emotional impact. That balancing act has won him plenty of fans while allowing him to keep playing in different horror sandboxes, stretching his abilities to see how far his style and narrative dexterity can really go.
We Have a Ghost is a test of that dexterity, an expansive take on the ghost story that packs the filmmaker’s signature blend of humor, horror and heart into an ambitious two hours of spooky fun. And while it’s a test the filmmaker mostly passes, We Have a Ghost also feels like a case of narrative overreach, a movie that tries to juggle too many things at once and drops a few balls along the way.
The “we” in We Have a Ghost is the Presley family, who move into a creepy old house for a fresh start after yet another falling out over patriarch Frank’s (Anthony Mackie) often shady business dealings. Youngest son Kevin (Jahi Winston) is over it all, fed up with the constant shifts in his family’s living situation, content to hide in his music and sulk. That changes when he creeps up to the family’s new attic and encounters a balding ghost in a bowling shirt stamped with the name Ernest (David Harbour). What starts as an attempted scare soon blooms into a friendship, as Kevin discovers that Ernest is a lost soul with no clear memories of who he was or what led to his current position as a haunter stuck between worlds.
When Frank and Kevin’s older brother Fulton (Niles Fitch) realize that smartphone footage of Ernest exists, they do their best to turn their haunted house into a YouTube empire. But Kevin’s not interested in what Ernest can do for his family. He’s much more interested in what he can do for Ernest and, with the help of his new neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo), sets out to get to the bottom of his friendly ghost’s identity, even as the world makes Ernest into a social media celebrity.
Landon leaps right into this conceit with the confidence of a seasoned veteran, and latches onto a formula that works thanks to the partnership between Kevin and Ernest. We Have a Ghost is at its best when it hinges on the bond between a lost boy and his equally lost undead friend, and Landon’s ability to brush in color around Kevin’s family life only enhances that connection. We’ve all felt isolated, even in our own homes, trapped in a situation we didn’t create with no real understanding of how to escape or change. Landon underlines that feeling without ever preaching to us. If you know his other work, you’ll recognize it as classic stuff, and it plays remarkably well thanks to the crispness of the writing and the chemistry between Winston and Harbour—the latter managing a lot of emotional range in an almost wordless performance.
You might also recognize the brisk pace of Landon’s plotting, which served him well in Happy Death Day and Freaky, laced throughout We Have a Ghost’s journey across comedy, tragedy and flat-out paranormal adventure. The film moves, guided by clever dialogue and sharp camerawork, and no act of the story feels like a clone of the one that came before it. The arcs are clear, the wider mythology of the world relatively firm, and the relationships at the heart of each story thread relatable and solid. Still, that doesn’t stop We Have a Ghost from faltering as it becomes clear that there’s maybe one too many threads in this complicated tapestry.
We Have a Ghost’s core narrative, about a boy and his haunting new friend, rings true and clear and bright for the duration—as does Kevin’s troubles with his family, his relationship with Joy (Russo begs for a paranormal adventure of her very own) and Frank’s own insecurities about how his life turned out. But then the film keeps throwing in more, using Ernest’s rising fame to bring in Jennifer Coolidge as a jaded TV medium and Tig Notaro as a government-agent-turned-paranormal-author in subplots that don’t so much feel like duds as like segments of an entirely different movie. Coolidge and Notaro are both welcome presences in just about any film, and they do add something to the proceedings, but you can never shake the feeling that their scenes feel like things this particular story didn’t need. In those moments, We Have a Ghost starts to feel just a little off-balance, a little lost, and things falter.
Still, there’s plenty to love, and Landon’s sense of narrative focus ensures that all the energy and heart of the film’s main story is still there by the end. We Have a Ghost may not stand toe-to-toe with the dual brilliance of Freaky and Happy Death Day, but it’s proof that Christopher Landon still feels like he’s just getting started.
Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Christopher Landon, Geoff Manaugh
Starring: David Harbour, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Tig Notaro, Jennifer Coolidge, Anthony Mackie
Release Date: February 24, 2023 (Netflix)
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.