Seeking a fresh start in Chicago, the Presley family moves into a dusty fixer-upper they soon realize comes with a catch: a ghost in the attic named Ernest (David Harbour). Despite Ernest’s attempts at scaring teenage son Kevin (Jahi Winston), the detached, music-obsessed teen soon finds a kindred spirit in this trapped soul from the ’70s and commits to helping him. Meanwhile, Kevin’s affable-yet-harsh father Frank (Anthony Mackie) looks to cash in on Ernest by turning him into a social media sensation. When Frank’s video of Ernest goes viral and captures the world’s attention, the family lands on the radar of Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro), a washed-up paranormal scientist who alerts her old boss, Deputy Director Arnold Schipley of the CIA (Steve Coulter), restarting a clandestine program aimed at capturing a ghost. As crowds, reporters, and government agents descend upon the Presley home, it’s up to Kevin and his sharp-witted, fellow outcast neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo) to break Ernest out, uncover the mysteries of his past, and bring him the closure he needs before it’s too late.
“We are not going to be like every stupid white family in a horror film,” notes the mother (Erica Ash) in We Have a Ghost, a Netflix comedic ghost romp featuring David Harbor of Stranger Things as the titular specter, named Ernest. There is the echo of all those Ernest movies from the 80’s featuring Jim Varney as the lovable Appalachian goofus with the rubber face and cartoon imperviousness to objects shredding and piercing his body. The name also has echoes of Eliot, the child character of Spielberg’s E.T. Ernest is also seeking his way back home. All these echoes of the past indicate We Have a Ghost has slightly elevated expectations for this mostly enjoyable ghost story.
The twist is that the family being haunted is black. The unintended racial pun of a family of “Spooks” (a derogatory word created by whites to haunt and demean blacks) not being spooked by a spook is the film’s dramatic theme and plot organizer. I’m sure there is some deconstruction of the word being attempted by writer and director Christopher Landon who is known for his witty retakes of the horror genre. (The punning title of Happy Death Day 2U is a prime example.) Add the Ernest elements to We Have a Ghost, the commercial exploitation of the ghost attempted by the father (Anthony Mackie) which aims to keep the white ghost chained to them via the capitalist bond that reverses the master-slave relationship, the acknowledgement and attempted emancipation of this ghost slavery by the son (Jahi Di’Allo), all the Smokey and the Bandit car chases and police buffoonery, and crucially, that the white ghost is almost entirely mute, is a pretty convincing case for some revisionism going on, wether or not it’s being funneled through some misconceived white liberal guilt.
David Harbor does some wonderfully expressive work in a role that requires him to be nonverbal. He may be part slave and trained animal act, but enough humanity leaks through to give his ghost a genuine humanity and sympathy. He rattles and chains his way to a well-deserved human connection and release to a waiting heavenly presence. He elevates We Have a Ghost beyond its misconceptions, own stumbling and E.T. echoes and pretensions. “Just because you’re not made of matter, it doesn’t mean you don’t matter,” a social post in the movie notes.
We Have a Ghost gets a 3.5 out of 5 or a B+.
by Geoff Manaugh
- Marty Bowen
- Dan Halsted
- February 24, 2023
- Running time
- 127 minutes
- United States
- $75.3 million