Review: We Have A Ghost

We Have A Ghost


Cleaning up the town

When the Presley family – desperate to be a success father Frank (Anthony Mackie), fretful mother Melanie (Erica Ash), social media obsessed older brother Fulton (Niles Fitch) and perpetually miserable younger son Kevin (Jahi Winston) – move into their new home, the most they expect is for a difficult transition into a fixer-upper. But when Kevin discovers that the house is haunted by the voiceless spectre of “Ernest” (David Harbour), Frank latches on to the chance of turning the ghost’s existence into a media frenzy and promotion opportunity. While a disgusted Kevin teams up with next door neighbour Joy (Isabella Russo) to try and help an amnesiac Ernest discover why he died and why he has not moved on, government agent Leslie (Tig Notaro) enacts her own agenda for the spirit.

This is a weird one I have to say. Based on a short story published by Vice several years ago, We Have A Ghost seemed to be promoted primarily as some form of comedy, a wacky situational affair where a family deals with the tropes of the haunted house from a modern perspective where everyone has a phone and everyone has an opinion, essentially a sort of sartorial skewering of the genre. Parts of We Have A Ghost, right down to the tranquilo-like nature of the titular realisation – is it meant to be a play on a different kind of trope/stereotype, the unflappability of black Americans, that they have such a reaction – are very much that, and those are probably the best part of the production really. We are presented with the usual haunted house set-up, but instead of things flying off the walls and families being driven away in terror, the patriarch of this particular family responds by making and selling T-shirts. But it is through such things that We Have A Ghost suddenly changes, moving instead into the realms of all out drama – and a very fraught kind of drama at that – and a more pointed skewering, of social media mob mentality, racist policing and honest-to-God government overreach.

You can’t have it both ways I am afraid. A montage where the world reacts to Ernest’s existence, portrayed as a collection of reaction videos and increasingly crazed Tik Tok-like commentaries (there’s the woman who is in love with Ernest, another who shows us a picture of what their baby would look like, a diatribe on “ghosts rights” and a right winger who suggests supporter of Ernest “move to New Zealand”). The problem is that this is just something that happens, and where We Have A Ghost has the opportunity to do something cool with the idea of a social media trending ghost in terms of criticising the nature of social media and associated exploitation of people, it just lands temporarily on this, and then goes back to the wacky possibilities of the mob outside the haunted house, just a basic obstacle to be overcome. Ditto for the other weightier things that the film briefly tries to do, with the racial angle only touched upon briefly, and the depiction of a deep state government response to the ghosts almost laughably over-the-top.

This would be worse if the cast didn’t bring it, and I did appreciate the performance of Jahi Winston as Kevin, a dead-eyed teenager who is suffering from the worrying realisation that his father is not the man he thought he was when he was a child (it the father character who is the main focus of the short story, a seriously toned piece where he is portrayed as a serial abuser: adherence to that might have made for a better film, with the struggling patriarch a somewhat more intriguing figure than the moody teenager). He and Mackie, who is working hard at what has to be considered a pretty minor pitstop for his career ahead of more MCU ventures, have a pretty good back-and-forth on that score, and but for that genuinely emotional beating heart the film would really suffer. Harbour does alight as the wordless Ernest, though weirdly he’s not that important a character, at least until the last act, there just to be there, and the actor is the victim of maybe the most needlessly saccharine material that infests the final act. The other member of the cast to note is Notoro, who is totally at sea: either very aware that the character she is playing, a disgraced ghost expert who has a not very well-defined hatred of spectres, is not that good, or maybe just not able to play this kind of part all that well. Since she’s nominally the main antagonist force of the film, her limp performance drags the film down from the occasional heights that it gets near, and it isn’t from lack of talent: she’s brought it before in unlikely films, like Army Of The Dead, but doesn’t seem to have the energy this time. Jennifer Coolidge also shows up, mostly for one scene, as a hard-to-impress medium who ends up jumping out a literal window when confronted with Ernest, but is otherwise pretty wasted by this film.

Director Christopher Landon – who has plenty of horror chops, from writing various Paranormal Activity movies and directing the Happy Death Day franchise – does a few imaginative things, like the opening fixed camera shot of the traditional haunted house narrative, or a montage sequence where Ernest flees through walls to avoid the crowds of gawkers. A car chase sequence at the foot of the second act comes a bit out of nowhere, but is well-presented. The obvious inspirations become clear with things like that, with Kevin’s mad dash to freedom with Ernest and the girl next door clearly taking cues from the likes of E.T. or Casper. At other moments it starts to get a little silly, like when sci-fi elements are introduced, a government containment facility for ghosts, complete with ghost rifles, looking more like an abandoned concept from Beyond: Two Souls than anything else. At least the effects for Harbour’s character are pretty good, allowing the man to bring plenty of unexpected warmth for this lost soul.

In the end We Have A Ghost really needs to pick a lane. In a world where Ghostbusters has fallen prey to the most sycophantic of nostalgia-bait, there is plenty of room for a spiritual successor to take the ball and run with it, in presenting a supernatural-themed comedy of ordinary people dealing with the otherworldly. That’s the kind of film that I wouldn’t mind seeing, something that tried to capture the energy of 1984 with a modern twist. But instead it chooses to discard the comedic opportunity presented in favour of a sometimes workable father/son drama, a certain amount of aping of the Stranger Things dynamic and some not well explored cultural commentary. With a hit-and-miss cast and cinematography, We Have A Ghost mostly comes down on the latter part of “lives and dies”. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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1 Response to Review: We Have A Ghost

  1. Pingback: Review: Your Place Or Mine | Never Felt Better

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