We Have a Ghost review – supernatural Netflix caper needs more spirit
We Have a Ghost, A so-so attempt to recall kids’ films of the 80s struggles to find its own personality amidst its many influences
One of the hardest big screen losses during the quick shuttering and slow reopening of cinemas during the pandemic was the lack of a major audience for body swap comedy horror Freaky, a snappy crowd-pleaser that never really had the chance to truly please a substantial crowd. Writer-director Christopher Landon’s niftily effective and surprisingly sensitive mash-up of Friday the 13th and Freaky Friday was bundled into multiplexes when audiences were still staying away, and as such, remains cruelly under-seen.
Like Landon’s previous work – writing scripts for Disturbia and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse and directing Happy Death Days 1 and 2 – it showcased a buoyancy of tone that ensured fun was being had even when frightening things were happening. It makes sense that he would then parlay that into the world of family films and so his Netflix caper We Have a Ghost might be aimed at a younger demographic but it retains a similar speed and spirit. But as perfect as this match-up might seem on paper, the move has also come at a cost, a loss of something more distinctive perhaps. Landon has always been transparent about his influences – Happy Death Day recalling Groundhog Day, Disturbia recalling Rear Window (to the extent that Hitchcock’s estate tried to sue) – but here, he’s too busy trying to conjure the vibe of a certain type of film to focus on crafting something of his own.
That type of film would be best defined by the Amblin logo, something that reminds most of us of a specific combination of adventure, comedy and often gentle moments of something scarier, films like ET, The Goonies, Batteries Not Included and Arachnophobia (a film Landon is currently set to remake). His story takes a family and moves them into a suspiciously cheap new home only for them to find out that it is haunted by a gentle ghost, played by David Harbour. “We have a ghost!” is then exclaimed with the words meaning something different to each family member. For father Frank (Anthony Mackie), it’s an opportunity to make money, for mother Melanie (Survivor’s Remorse alum Erica Ash) it’s a reason to be frustrated, for eldest son Fulton (Niles Fitch) it’s a way to get girls and for younger son Kevin (Jahi Winston) it’s a way to feel less alone.
It’s Kevin who takes the lead, nurturing a friendship and tasking himself with trying to help the ghost figure out why he died and how he might find some sort of freedom.
In Landon’s simpler, sweeter low-stakes opening act, the film works best, a charming melange of Casper, Beetlejuice and the aforementioned Amblin classics, gently taking us through familiar motions. But the film gets quickly bogged down in some over-plotted nonsense involving a gaudy TV medium (Jennifer Coolidge, given very little and doing very little with it), a ghost hunter turned author (Tig Notaro) and an oversized CIA masterplan. The bigger it all gets, the further we feel pushed away and it starts to recall the scrappy disaster of Happy Death Day 2U, which squandered the simple joys of the original by needlessly extending the canvas. It’s not quite as awful as that ended up being, but it’s similarly frustrating, an initial spark carelessly drowned out.
There is some mildly interesting familial tension at play between Mackie’s opportunist father and Winston’s disappointed son (a speech about being unable to hide one’s faults when a child gets old enough to see them is effective) but Landon struggles to bring emotional heft to the central friendship. The rules of the film dictate that Harbour’s ghost is unable to talk, which makes it hard for him to do all that much with the character, and as his backstory is revealed, it’s hinged both on a version of a tired trope (it would be a spoiler to mention which but I have written about it before) and a twist involving a character we’re barely aware of. The energy that powered Landon’s previous suburban mystery Disturbia is regrettably absent, despite a lurch into Hitchcockian thriller territory.
Landon’s initial attempts to recall the films many of us grew up with start to sour as he heads towards his finale because we’re not left with enough of the new to sit with the old (a big emotional goodbye, aimed to jerk tears, is more likely to make viewers check watches). It’s not that its heart isn’t in the right place, it’s just that its heart has been transplanted from somewhere else.
We Have a Ghost is now available on Netflix
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