Review: ‘We Have a Ghost’ (my two dads)

After his dad Frank (Anthony Mackie) moves their family into a rundown century-old home in Chicago, loner and music-enthusiast Kevin Presley (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) discovers a ghost in the attic (David Harbour). After an attempt to frighten the teen fails miserably, Kevin decides instead to help, dubbing him “Ernest” from the name on ghost’s 1970s era bowling shirt. Ernest can’t remember who he is, how he died, and can’t even actually speak, but a viral video posted by Frank turns the ghost into a social media sensation… gaining the attention of a disgraced paranormal scientist (Tig Notaro) determined to prove the existence and dangers of haunting spirits. With the help of his neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo), Kevin is driven to help Ernest discover the truth about his life and death before he’s trapped in the corporeal realm forever as a lab rat.

Written and directed by Happy Death Day creator Christopher Landon based on the Geoff Manaugh short story “Ernest,” there are clear story beats that can be traced back to Beetlejuice, Casper, E.T., and even Ghostbusters. A number of classic rock songs including Alice Cooper and John Fogerty are present — even a nod to the era with a moving van company called “Knight Moves” and naming the family Presley — that seem to be specific directorial choices along with a score by Bear McCreary. Made for Netflix, the trailers suggest more paranormal imitation than innovation, and yet there’s something in the casting and especially between Mackie and Harbour that elevates the material… or maybe it’s just clever editing. With all the modern reworks of ghost stories (including Netflix’s own recent “Lockwood & Co.”), is there something here more than filler?

There are similarities to The Adam Project herein: production value, significant star power, echoes of Steven Spielberg family films, and especially the fear-of-failure father angle. While the former film mostly satisfied, We Have a Ghost manages to hit more of the feels because of Harbour’s silent treatment: he doesn’t speak a word throughout the entire film, and that lends to the mystery of Ernest. Even with entire scenes echoing other films — Tig Notaro’s character going all Walter Peck, the Presleys turning into the Deetzes, armed operatives invading a private home to capture something not of this Earth — there’s an underlying charm and sweetness that swells to the surface. Even with a significant subplot wholly abandoned in the third act, the story manages to hit home, punctuated by a heartfelt speech by Mackie — in case anyone assumed his casting was just a paycheck between Marvel movies.

The biggest shortcoming is the Ghostbusters bit, with Tig Notaro’s part seeming bigger but reduced to a plot device. More could have been done with this particular subplot, but it’s as if something was missing or cut for time; as it is, the entire thing could have been edited out, existing only to create urgency and speed the plot along while simultaneously stretching the runtime to just over two hours. Maybe it was an excuse for a 1970s-style car chase — insert mandatory Jackie Gleason sumbitch reference here — and the resulting gags are entertaining. Special care was taken to give Ernest a unique VFX appearance as a ghost and the way his powers manifest; while his capability breaks with a lot of traditional ghost rules, it showcases why he’s unique and establishes the story as its own thing regardless of everything it borrows from. The only thing missing a is a film enthusiast pointing out all the references.

Ernest’s house in Chicago is almost a character itself, but some angles of the home appearing later in the film look like a different location, like pickup shots after the sets were struck. The attic looks enormous, too big to be where it’s supposed to be, practically an unfurnished condominium. No matter how big of a production it looks, the actors are the heart of the film, including Jahi Di’Allo Winston easy-going charm and Isabella Russo’s infectious enthusiasm. We Have a Ghost is both worth a look and happily better than promised.

We Have a Ghost is rated PG-13 for language, some sexual/suggestive references, violence, and the rights of the recently deceased.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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