‘We Have a Ghost’ Review – Gateway Horror Adventure Uses Ghostly Charms to Capture Family Bonds

Writer/Director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, Freaky) evokes the family-friendly Amblin movies of yesterday for his latest, Netflix’s We Have a Ghost. Wearing its formative gateway horror influences on its sleeves, We Have a Ghost blends nostalgic family adventure-induced charm with Landon’s distinct ability to render authentic characters to an affecting degree. While it threatens to overstay its welcome, the tender adventure delivers ghostly charm, poignant family bonds, and humor that’ll appeal to new generations of budding genre fans.

The Presley family moved into a long-vacant fixer-upper near Chicago, looking for a fresh start. It’s the latest in a string of new beginnings for ambitious, restless dad Frank (Anthony Mackie), much to the chagrin of his youngest son, Kevin (Jahi Winston). Not even older brother Fulton (Niles Fitch) or peacekeeping mom Melanie (Erica Ash) can stave off the mounting tension between them. Kevin’s tired of constantly getting uprooted every time Frank cycles through a different career path, but he mostly wants to find acceptance through his unwavering love of music. Kevin’s the first to encounter Ernest (David Harbour), a ghost with unfinished business. When Frank discovers Ernest, it transforms the entire household into a viral video sensation that puts them all on the radar of scientist Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro) and Deputy Director Arnold Schipley of the CIA (Steve Coulter), sparking a wild journey that’ll change everyone involved.

We Have A Ghost. (L to R) Erica Ash as Melanie, David Harbour as Ernest in We Have A Ghost. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.

Landon, adapting Geoff Manaugh’s short story, puts his characters first. Long before the ghost adventure kicks into high gear, the filmmaker finds succinct, infectious ways to establish these characters as fully realized people. The Presley family is instantly relatable and provides rooting interest, even with their flaws. Mackie brings charisma to Frank that balances his harsher side, while Fitch and Ash imbue their supporting characters with enough distinct personalities to enrich the family dynamics.

The driving force of this story is Kevin, though, and his unique bond with Ernest that catapults them both into a paranormal coming-of-age road trip story. In this world, ghosts can’t speak beyond moans and vocalizations, yet Harbour can tug at the heartstrings so well that you’ll forget he never utters a word. It’s Winston that impresses most, though, as a sweet teen with a solid moral center willing to undergo anything to help his ghost pal. Kevin is the emotional backbone of this “boy and his ghost” tale, and Winston makes it seem effortless.

We Have a Ghost contemporizes its ‘80s influences, evoking everything from E.T. to Beetlejuice, though Landon introduces some original sci-fi fun to the mix. Save for a few gateway scare moments to exhilarate younger viewers, Landon instead uses the genre elements playfully to propel Kevin and Ernest’s journey through memorable set pieces and a heightened sense of reality. A Beetlejuice-esque sequence involving Jennifer Coolidge brings the laughs. But it’s sequences like an intricate car chase involving an incorporeal entity shot with incredible swooping camera work that set this movie apart from the pack.

We Have A Ghost. (L to R) Isabella Russo as Joy, Jahi Winston as Kevin, David Harbour as Ernest in We Have A Ghost. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.

As densely packed as Kevin’s road trip gets, We Have a Ghost occasionally reminds you of its robust runtime. It makes certain supporting subplots seem swept aside as a result, though it ultimately doesn’t detract from the overarching story or its emotional impact. The poignant beats and character arcs all satisfy by the story’s end.

Landon’s latest continues his streak of using the genre in clever ways to serve its poignant, authentically rendered characters. The commentary on social media and its modern sensibilities, bolstered by a tremendous cast, transforms the familiar into something fresh and new. It’s a breezy, infectious family adventure that’s as entertaining as it is affecting, making it an easy recommendation to introduce younger audiences and families to sci-fi and horror.

Netflix releases We Have a Ghost on February 24, 2023.

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