‘Freaky’ director squanders David Harbour in the largely lifeless ‘We Have a Ghost’
You can appreciate Christopher Landon wanting to avoid being pigeonholed.
He has become best known for directing and writing or co-writing three very fun slasher comedies: 2017 gem “Happy Death Day”; its 2019 sequel, “Happy Death Day 2U”; and 2020’s “Freaky,” a bloody twist on the “Freaky Friday” formula.
With “We Have a Ghost” — now on Netflix — he offers a paranormal story that’s a bit more family-friendly, Landon telling The Hollywood Reporter that “I’ve always had a sort of Amblin movie in me.”
Unfortunately, the romp he’s conjured — about a family that moves into a house with a ghost and goes viral after revealing said spirit to the world — is, for the most part, deadly dull.
“E.T.” this is not.
It begins promisingly enough, with a shot of a house, from which we hear screams that soon are followed by a family running out of the front door, quickly piling into a minivan and pulling out of the driveway so frantically that they knock over the mailbox.
Then the front door slams, and an illuminated upstairs room goes dark.
A year later, a new family, the Presleys, moves into the Chicago home, unaware of why the cost was so low even while taking into account that it’s a fixer-upper.
Following some business going bad in Houston, patriarch Frank (a just-OK Anthony Mackie of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”) is looking for a fresh start with his wife, Melanie (Erica Ash), and teenage sons, Kevin (Jahi Winston) and Fulton (Niles Fitch, “This Is Us”).
Kevin and his father are constantly at odds, with Kevin frustrated the family has had to move again and Frank angered by the young man’s preference to lose himself to rock music rather than engage with the family.
In the attic, Kevin encounters a kindred spirit, with the emphasis on “spirit.” Wearing a bowling shirt bearing the name Ernest and sporting a serious comb-over, this ghost (David Harbour) appears to Kevin and howls and waves his hands wildly at him. Kevin is decidedly unimpressed with this attempt at fright and immediately goes about befriending Ernest, whom can’t be touched but who can touch others if he so chooses.
“Kinda like a stripper,” Kevin quips, serving up one of the better lines in “We Have a Ghost.”
It isn’t long before the whole family has made the acquaintance of Ernest. And while Melanie wants to move — “We are not going to be like every stupid white family in every horror film; we are leaving!” — Frank sees dollar signs.
Sure enough, videos he posts blow up, and soon the world is interested in Ernest and the Presleys.
That includes Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Nataro, “Your Place or Mine”), a disgraced paranormal scientist involved in a since-dismantled clandestine program, Operation Wizard Clip, that she desperately wants to resurrect.
Meanwhile, because he cares about Ernest, Kevin — along with neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo), who clearly cares about Kevin — seeks to dig into a past the ghost can’t recall.
“We Have a Ghost” largely centers around the trio’s mystery-solving efforts, giving us a mini-road-trip flick within the movie that runs on fumes. That’s largely because the characters are likable but almost completely uninteresting.
That brings us to the oddest choice Landon makes with “Ghost”: almost completely silencing Harbour. The actor is a delight in TV and movie projects including “Stranger Things” and “Black Widow,” thanks largely to his line deliveries. Harbour does what he can to sell the character with expressions and physicality, but this friendly ghost is far from all he could have been.
Perhaps an even bigger problem is the movie’s near-constant lack of narrative propulsion. Instead of pulling us in, it does all it can just to pull us with it.
Given some of the creative ideas found in “Freaky” and the “Death Day” affair, you keep waiting for something fresh, something unexpected. A scene in which “White Lotus” star Jennifer Coolidge plays a TV medium who experiences an encounter of the gross kind with Ernest doesn’t cut it.
The “Happy” and “Freaky” flicks represented a second act for Landon, who previously made a mark writing the 2007 thriller “Disturbia” and a few “Paranormal Activity” sequels in the years that followed. If “We Have a Ghost” is the beginning of his third act, the chapter is off to a bumpy start.
At the risk of, well, pigeonholing him, we truly hope Landon gets to make his envisioned third “Death Day,” “Happy Death Day to Us.” And then there’s the unkillable talk of a “Happy”-”Freaky” crossover, aka “Freaky Death Day,” that would bring together respective engaging stars Jessica Rothe and Kathryn Newton.
With “We Have a Ghost,” Landon was able to work with a much larger budget — reportedly, about $75 million — than he had on the aforementioned releases from Blumhouse Productions. But while the ghostly effects used to bring Ernest into the land of the living are impressive enough, it mostly wasn’t money well spent.
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