Ernest Scared Stupid
I really enjoyed all three of Christopher Landon’s previous movies for the way they executed high concept horror-comedy. None of his three breakout films — Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U, and Freaky — are perfect storytelling specimens, but they all hold together as exquisitely charming films. So now We Have a Ghost has to ruin the damn streak.
This Netflix original is based off of the short story “Ernest” by Geoff Manaugh. But we have no one to blame but Landon himself: He hand-picked the story and adapted the screenplay. To be fair, this film is clearly targeted at a broader family audience than any of his other recent films. But it still feels like Landon got a little carried away, trying to do much more of much less interesting storytelling than his better films. And it’s not what makes the movie different from his others that brings We Have a Ghost down: the family-oriented, coming-of-age material is actually some of the movie’s better material.
The story follows the Presley family, who just moved to a new town. The family is upper-middle-class by most appearances, but the story repeatedly suggests that the parents, Frank (Anthony Mackie) and Melanie (Erica Ash), are a bit strapped for cash. Frank gets sucked into get-rich-quick schemes. They buy a fixer-upper at a discount, not realizing that its low asking price is because it’s known around town as “The Death House” and is haunted by a ghost.
The Presleys have barely moved in when teenage son Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) meets Ernest (David Harbour), the titular ghost. Ernest has a bad comb-over and a stained bowling jacket but is otherwise not especially intimidating. He doesn’t make noise or go out of his way to scare anyone. He’s friendlier than Casper.
The film doesn’t bother to linger on the question of whether Ernest is real or whether he’s dangerous. The entire Presley family accepts him immediately, although there’s one half-assed beat where the rest of the family tries to hide him from the mother
I was actually vibing with the movie in these early scenes. They have a pleasant, low-key texture. If Landon’s whole game is mixing horror with familiar stock plots and genres, why not a horror teen hang-out comedy?
At this point in his career, Landon’s biggest strength is obvious: He always gets terrific performances and chemistry out of his leads. We Have a Ghost is no exception. Winston is charismatic and funny as the sympathetic teen. I’d love to see him in some more movies. Mackie is high-strung and hysterical, checked in where other actors of his caliber might have treated the streaming gig as an easy paycheck. Harbour casts a figure both imposing and tender, especially in the film’s second half.
Unfortunately, the story spins out of control after the first act and doesn’t quite recover until the very end of the movie. Frank decides that his family’s ticket to quick wealth is turning Ernest into a media sensation. This leads to a big, unfunny satire on the sensationalism of both traditional and social media. It’s nothing you haven’t seen thousand times before, and Landon doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeve to make this stretch more fun.
This is also where the movie decides to introduce its government secret agency subplot: Tig Notaro plays a CIA agent responsible for investigating the paranormal, which adds an undercooked conspiracy thriller thread to an already busy film.
As if that wasn’t enough narrative jumble, the movie also starts exploring Ernest’s backstory in what becomes the movie’s central mystery. Thus, we have three incompatible arcs introduced the second act, and none of them are especially compelling. And so following We Have a Ghost’s gentle intro, it rapidly becomes chaotic and unsatisfying.
This essentially manifests as a villain problem: All of Landon’s three previous movies had really distinct and intimidating baddies: the baby-mask stabber in the Happy Death Day movies and The Butcher in Freaky. We Have a Ghost, on the other hand, is juggling unremarkable antagonists left and right. On top of that, there is the lurking threat of a surprise villain in the third act as Ernest’s backstory gradually comes to light.
I was all ready to write off We Have a Ghost as a complete misfire, but the film crystallizes once again in its closing 15 minutes with a theme that had been tertiary to that point: fatherhood. There are a few really lovely, quiet scenes toward the end of the film that had tears running down my cheeks. The films emotionality sneaks up on you, but doesn’t feel entirely unearned. But I think it would’ve hit even harder if the film had been less about the commotion of the ghost and more about what he represents to Nathan throughout the whole film.
The film is also over two hours long, an absolutely outrageous runtime for a family horror-comedy adventure. In that vein, here’s my proposed rewrite of the film. Landon, you should’ve called me: Completely cut out the media hoopla subplot and the CIA subplot. You’d easily get the film a half hour shorter from that, probably more, and you could focus much more on the mystery of Ernest’s backstory and the parallels between Kevin’s relationship with his dad and with Ernest.
I have not given up hope on Landon by a long shot, though. He stages a few terrific set pieces in this film and generally creates a strong sense of space, particularly in the haunted house. My favorite action scene of the movie involves Ernest flying through walls with a few corporeal human characters trying to keep up, stumbling through doors and over furniture. It’s a fun piece of slapstick.
Plenty of streaming releases have had major issues with special effects and CGI. We Have a Ghost’s CGI is… passable, most of the time. (Compared to the similar Curse of Bridge Hollow, the CGI here belongs in the Louvre, though that one’s story is less busted.) The signature effects of the movie are Ernest as a translucent human and, when Ernest turns invisible, objects floating and moving as he manipulates them. It’s not an especially sophisticated or unique series of effects, but it works well enough and it rarely pulled me out of the film as artificial or cheap looking, so I’ll call it a win for a straight-to-streaming film. However, the movie suffers from that over-graded and glossy Netflix house style, so it’s not exactly pleasing.
We Gave a Ghost has a few compelling moments and plenty of promise, but it’s sufficiently broken and unsatisfying that I give it a thumbs down as the first subpar Landon film I’ve seen.