Netflix’s Family-Friendly ‘We Have a Ghost’ Is a Haunted Mess

Writer-director-producer Christopher Landon, of several “Paranormal Activity” movies, both “Happy Death Day” movies, and “Freaky,” tries for a more family-friendly comedy with his latest feature, “We Have a Ghost.” This ghoulish tale, based on the short story, “Ernest,” by Geoff Manaugh, follows a family who move into an older house to find out that an unexpected tenant already “lives” there.

“We Have a Ghost” begins with a familiar premise. A family with a haunted past moves into a large but dilapidated house for a discounted price. The Presley family consists of dad Frank (Anthony Mackie), whose bad business decisions have gotten them to this point; mom Melanie (Erica Ash), who’s anxious for a fresh start; older teen Fulton (Niles Fitch), who is mostly interested in being cool and getting laid; and younger teen Kevin (Jahi Di’Alllo Winston), whose more introverted and prefers listening to loud rock music over talking with his father. 

It is Kevin who first encounters the ghost (David Harbour) in the creepy attic. Although he cannot really speak, Kevin names him based on the moniker that is stitched into the bowling shirt he wears. While his younger son’s instinct is to help Ernest, Frank has other ideas, and uploads a video of the ghost to YouTube. Although Landon briefly plays around with racial tropes in horror films — Melanie wants to move to avoid the Presleys becoming like a stupid white family in a ghost movie — ultimately, Frank decides to monetize their haunting, and Ernest quickly becomes a viral sensation. They soon catch the attention of a shady TV medium (Jennifer Coolidge), which leads to the hilarious high point of the film.

Tig Notaro gets some more chuckles as Dr. Leslie Monroe, a kooky scientist who believes Ernest validates her years of research into paranormal beings. Seeing him as her chance to finally be taken seriously by the CIA, she makes it her mission to capture him and bring him in. Meanwhile, Kevin and his new friend, fellow outcast Joy (Isabella Russo), are on their own journey with Ernest to discover who he was before he died and reunite him with possible loved ones. Harbour does a great job playing Ernest as a mostly gentle ghost, but one who isn’t afraid to resort to scare tactics and steal a cop’s gun when necessary.

Despite some strong performances, “We Have a Ghost” is another misfire from Netflix. It can’t decide if it wants to be a smart comedy or a sappy drama about a spirit. It starts off strongly, hinting that it will satirize the horror genre and/or society’s obsession with social media and fleeting fame, but veers off into a different direction after Kevin and Joy break away with Ernest. And with a runtime of two hours and seven minutes, it tests the viewer’s attention span. It ends with melodramatic moments that feel very different from what we are promised in the early scenes.

 “We Have a Ghost” begins streaming Feb. 24 on Netflix.