‘We Have a Ghost’ Review: Netflix’s Family-Friendly Haunted-House Movie Is a Fixer Upper

Despite strong performances from David Harbour and Jennifer Coolidge, this horror comedy feels like a misfire.

We Have A Ghost
Courtesy of Netflix

News of a fresh horror comedy from Christopher Landon, director of the joyously silly “Happy Death Day” and its sequel, should be greeted with cautious optimism at the very least. He’s been working in the space for some time now, having also co-written and directed “Freaky,” “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” and the more straightforward “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” and understands how to thread that particular needle better than most. His latest feels like both a natural next step and also something of a departure: a family-friendly haunted-house story releasing on Netflix. Unlike his previous efforts, however, “We Have a Ghost” fails to capture what makes this particular genre hybrid so much fun.

You know the setup by now: A family moves into a run-down, surprisingly affordable old house whose history the real-estate agent is loath to reveal. Though skeptical, mom and dad (Erica Ash and Anthony Mackie) can’t pass on such a deal. It isn’t long before they realize they aren’t alone in their new abode, of course. David Harbour, fresh off December’s “Violent Night” and in between seasons of “Stranger Things,” plays the spirit in question. Appearing in the attic as teenager Kevin (Jahi Winston) explores his new house, the ghost’s futile attempt at scaring his latest housemate results in uncontrolled laughter — understandable, given not only his combover and bowling shirt but how little conviction he puts into his tortured wailing.

Kevin, who’s withdrawn from his family in the same manner as so many angst-ridden teens before him, eventually stops laughing. Rather than ridicule the entity further or even question whether what he’s seeing is real, he instead tries to understand his plight. He quickly learns that Ernest (as the stitching on his shirt reveals his name to be) can touch others but not be touched. His halfhearted attempt at frightening Kevin seems to have been a defense mechanism, as he’d rather be left on his lonesome. Because he can’t speak and has no memories of his corporeal existence, Ernest is a bit like a stray animal who can only be approached with the utmost caution and on his own terms.

The three men of the family accept their ghostly reality immediately, neither skeptical of nor surprised by the fact that they’re living under the same roof with what may well be the first confirmed ghost in human history. Kevin’s older, cooler brother (Niles Fitch) and father want to monetize Ernest, rushing to put a cellphone video of him on YouTube, but the spirit only seems to show up when summoned by the youngest member of the family — the two have a bond from their first encounter, with both recognizing the other as lost in some fundamental way.

Only Kevin’s mother reacts as you’d expect the average person to: not only with fear when she sees Ernest, but anger upon learning that her family has concealed him from her. (“We are not gonna be like every stupid white family in every horror film. We are leaving!” she yells.) Ernest quickly goes viral, inspiring all manner of TikToks and even a Dr. Phil segment; it’s the latter that finally draws the attention of both a supernatural expert working with the CIA (Tig Notaro) and a TV medium who may or may not be a charlatan (Jennifer Coolidge). It will surprise few in this post-“White Lotus” world to learn that Coolidge steals her scenes and makes you wish there were more of them: It feels like stunt casting, sure, but at least it works. Harbour likewise makes the most of his character’s limitations, with pain etched on every line in his face.

The longer it goes on, however, the more difficult it becomes to discern what “We Have a Ghost” is even going for. On a tonal level, it’s more akin to a feature-length episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” than any horror-comedy in recent memory, its 127-minute runtime stretching like so much ectoplasm as Kevin tries to help solve the mystery of Ernest’s life and death. Rarely ha-ha funny and never scary, it’s ultimately more sentimental than anything else — a clunky approach that undermines its strong performances.

“We Have a Ghost” is based on “Ernest,” a short story by Geoff Manaugh first published in 2017 by Vice. Reading it offers a sense of what a better, more ethereal version of this movie might be like had it toned things down and not attempted to go so broad with its comedy. The result feels less like a ghost story than a movie haunted by the specter of what it could have been.

‘We Have a Ghost’ Review: Netflix’s Family-Friendly Haunted-House Movie Is a Fixer Upper

Reviewed on Netflix, Feb. 22, 2023. MPA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 127 MIN.

  • Production: A Netflix release and presentation of a Temple Hill, Halsted Pictures production. Producers: Marty Bowen, Dan Halsted. Executive producers: Christopher Landon, Korey Budd, Geoff Manaugh.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Christopher Landon. Camera: Marc Spicer. Editor: Ben Baudhuin. Music: Bear McCreary.
  • With: David Harbour, Jahi Winston, Tig Notaro, Erica Ash, Jennifer Coolidge, Anthony Mackie, Faith Ford, Niles Fitch, Isabella Russo, Steve Coulter.