Review: We Have a Ghost Is a Dead-On-Arrival Afterlife Comedy

With his previous films, writer/director Christopher Landon (Freaky, the Happy Death Day movies, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, and screenwriter on a bunch of the Paranormal Activity movies) seemed to be interested in dissecting the horror movie formula in an attempt to make it something fresh. And I thought that’s what we were getting with his latest, We Have A Ghost (based on the short story "Ernest" by Geoff Manaugh), which wonders what it would be like if a ghost haunting a specific house actually made friends with one of the residents and ended up becoming a worldwide, viral video celebrity in the process. But instead of focusing on this complicated, uncertain core relationship, the movie veers off into subplots about the business that is built up around the ghost named Ernest (David Harbour), as well as a secret CIA division reinvigorated by the existence of a verifiable spirit.

Jahi Di'Allo Winston plays grumpy teenager Kevin Presley, whose family moves into a fixer-upper house, sold at a dirt-cheap price for reasons unknown. Turns out the house is known to be haunted, all previous owners being scared out of the residence. Kevin’s parents (Anthony Mackie and Erica Ash) are tired of his mopey routine and basically let him live in isolation up in the attic, where he discovers the not-so-scary Ernest trying to scare him out of the house. Dressed in a bowling shirt and sporting a bad combover, Ernest is capable of spooky moaning and groaning, but he can’t actually speak. He also doesn’t really remember how he died or why he’s in this particular house, so Kevin makes it his mission to investigate in an attempt to set Ernest free of his earthly bonds.

Kevin is actually able to film Ernest, and when his father and brother find out about the video and the ghost, they see dollar signs and fame. Mackie’s character is one of those dads who sticks around but doesn’t have luck holding down a job or creating his own businesses. He sees Ernest as his ticket to financial security and then some. Not surprisingly, the video becomes a sensation, and future videos gain even more traction, turning Ernest into a worldwide celebrity.

Considering the proliferation of ghost hunter channels on cable and online, as well as reaction channels galore of people watching supposed ghost videos, We Have a Ghost seems like a film perfectly timed to capitalize on this craze. But instead of making the public’s need for more new content the enemy (you don’t want to chase away potential viewers of this dopey movie), the filmmakers opt to bring in a third-party villain in the form of CIA advisor Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro), who catches wind of the Ernest phenomenon and urges her former bosses to restart a program from years ago that dealt with paranormal investigation. She gets her old job back and attempts to gain access to Ernest, first by politely asking and then by force, throwing the Presley household into full panic, forcing Kevin and his best friend Joy (Isabella Russo) to take Ernest from the house and go on a bit of a road trip to look at leads into his past.

The hints into Ernest’s history are curious and seem to involve a family (including a still-living daughter), eventually leading the three to the ghost’s one-time best friend who has been following the videos for weeks and has been expecting their arrival. Not all is what it seems, and while it may look like Ernest may have been involved in some bad doings, maybe he wasn’t, and I don’t care. Even though this mystery element of We Have a Ghost does keep Ernest and Kevin together and communicating as best they can, the movie still feels empty and, well, dead inside.

Harbour is doing his damndest to keep Ernest interesting and sympathetic, but there’s too much nonsense going on around him to make that possible. The whole affair seems defiantly over-thought-out while still managing to be underwritten. The movie isn’t meant to be scary, so I guess they achieved their goals there. But it’s also not especially funny or insightful about web culture or ghost believers. And at slightly more than two hours long, it also has the gall of being way too long. We Have a Ghost is a deathly dud for the ages that will haunt me for weeks.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.