Christopher Landon is the reigning king of the horror-comedy, having directed time-loop chiller “Happy Death Day” (and its underrated follow-up) and “Freaky,” the only body-swapping slasher movie you’ll ever need. His latest, “We Have a Ghost” on Netflix, is his attempt at a more family-friendly hybrid.
The new movie follows a family (led by Anthony Mackie) who move into a house haunted by a schlubby specter (David Harbour). What follows is a wild bouillabaisse of different tones and genres, as it flits through being – at various points and sometimes all at once – a social media satire, a murder mystery and, somehow, a spy thriller.
In some ways, though, “We Have a Ghost” feels like the movie Landon has been working toward his entire career.
Landon has always been interested in the cheeky mixing-and-matching of styles. One of his first sold (and produced) screenplays was for “Disturbia” back in 2007.
“It was a whirlwind, to be honest,” Landon said about the experience.
Landon had been living in Texas and just moved back to California. As he waited for word on a CBS pilot he’d written, he banged out “Disturbia.” It was quickly sold and set up at DreamWorks.
“I think they even just immediately put it into production, which was pretty strange,” he said. “I had whiplash with that one, just because I’m so used to the cadence of it always just being an eternity for things to happen, if they happen at all. That was definitely a bit of a surprise.”
During this period, Landon got to meet Steven Spielberg, a moment that he describes now as “brief but awesome.”
“I remember the first time walking into Amblin and it was like, Boom,” he said.
Landon is still obsessed the Amblin office, tucked into Universal Studios: “I love it. Everything about that building I love, because it is so weirdly specific and that it sits in the middle of that lot and it’s got its own little ecosystem. I just think it’s fascinating and delightful and I love how dated it is and that they haven’t bothered to update it. It should be like going to your grandparents’ house in the best way possible.”
Landon is back at Amblin now … but more on that in a minute.
After Landon partnered with producer Jason Blum on a project that never came to fruition, he found himself sucked into the orbit of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise.
“It was an accident,” he said. “I got invited to a writer’s roundtable when they had shut production down on the second movie. I was just there to give random feedback on where they were at, at that point. In very me fashion, I inserted myself into it. I tried to make myself indispensable somehow because I saw there was an opportunity there.”
For the sequel they weren’t using a script. “I said, ‘Guys, this is silly. Oren Peli got away with it once. You’re not going to get away with it a second time, so let me write you a movie.’ So, I did that. And, then it worked and I just kept doing them.”
Landon ended up writing the second, third and fourth movies and wrote and directed the fifth movie, the underrated spinoff “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.”
“Jason and I spent so much time together in hot garages all over the valley shooting these movies. It always looked like we were making porn,” Landon said about the experience. He came back to the franchise last year to write the Paramount+ original “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin.”
“Happy Death Day,” released in 2017, was Landon’s breakthrough. It was based on an idea by comic book writer Scott Lobdell and followed a college girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe) who gets stuck in a time-loop on her birthday – each time she is killed by a sadistic masked killer and the only way to break the loop is for her to unmask her assailant. It proved to be an unexpected smash for Blumhouse and Universal, making more than $125 million on a budget of less than $5 million.
“I think it was a breakthrough moment for me because it was finally a movie that had my DNA in it. You know what I mean? I always felt like a bit of a gun-for-hire and certainly through the ‘Paranormal’ franchise, even though I really enjoyed that and some of the other films,” Landon said. “And, obviously ‘Disturbia’ was very me in a lot of ways too, but ‘Happy Death Day’ really seemed to really capture my personality as a person and as a filmmaker. I felt like I kind of started to figure out what I wanted to really do after that movie.”
“Happy Death Day” was followed by a sequel, “Happy Death Day 2 U” in 2019, which was both written and directed by Landon and was sweeter and stranger than its predecessor. (Landon’s father was Michael Landon, star of “Bonanza,” who passed away from cancer when Christopher was only 16. You can feel a lot of those unresolved emotions in the sequel.)
Sadly, a planned third film in the franchise was kiboshed. When pressed for details, Landon demurred.
“I have to still keep it in my pocket on the off-chance … because here’s the thing, it’s not time-sensitive. You know what I mean?” Landon said. “I could make that movie whenever if they allowed me to. At some point, I’m just going to spill the beans. I had a full pitch. There was a whole movie that was ready to go in my brain. We’ll see what happens.”
The appeal of the “Happy Death Day” movies was, in part, how they could “shift genres” (according to Landon). The second movie, he said, leaned into more sci-fi: “It was my ‘Weird Science’-y movie in a lot of ways.”
As for the third movie?
“The third movie was going to be an epic apocalyptic adventure with still elements of horror. That was not getting left behind. But yeah, we were going to change gears again and it was going to be bigger,” said Landon, who admits the size and ambition was a stumbling block. “I think that was probably also what held us back a touch because the concept for the third movie is a bigger, much bigger movie.”
Not that he didn’t get to play around with a larger budget. “We Have a Ghost” is rumored to have cost somewhere in the $75 million range. And it’s easy to see why, with a cast sprinkled with movie stars and complicated visual effects.
“I read the short story and fell in love with it right away. I knew exactly what kind of movie I wanted it to be and I wrote it very quickly. Then there were many drafts to follow as we played around with different ideas but it really did stay very much the same in a lot of ways,” Landon said, referring to “Ernest,” a short story that originally ran on Vice (of all places) by Geoff Manaugh. “I just was really drawn to the whole thing. I was drawn to this relationship between a young kid and a ghost. I was drawn to the sort of how it poked at the complexities of fatherhood and social media and instant stardom and the rabbit hole and the dark side of that.”
And, Landon admits, he was intrigued by the size of “We Have a Ghost.”I was really excited to make a bigger movie, to be given that kind of a budget to prove that I can do it. But, also to prove that I can do that thing but still be true to myself creatively and still put myself into it, put my heart into it,” Landon said. “It’s ironic that the character’s name is Ernest, because I think as a writer I can be very earnest and I don’t shy away from that. I think that movies can get very cynical. I think cynicism is an armor that people like to put on. I’m okay with taking it off and that’s what I wanted for this movie.”
In terms of the movies that inspired him on “We Have a Ghost,” he said that from the moment he read the short story, he thought “this can be my ‘E.T.’ in some ways. This can be that thing for me.” He also said that there are flourishes of “Raimi and Peter Jackson,” in particular Jackson’s “The Frightneners.” There’s also “Beetlejuice.”
“I think there’s sort of a whole catalog of my childhood that I kind of reached into,” Landon said. “And, I think most filmmakers really work from that place of just general inspiration from filmmakers that really shaped them as they were growing up.”
And while Landon said that, with his newfound expertise on visual effects and large-scale filmmaking, he’s not interested in making an “Avengers” movie, there is a property that he’s always been dying to tackle. “One that I was so aggressive about in the past, but I couldn’t get near it, and it’s so obvious I think to me, was ‘Gremlins,’” Landon said. “I’ve wanted to do a sequel to ‘Gremlins’ my whole life. And, it’s been kicking around for a while, but I think it’s still very much a Chris Columbus project as far as I know. That was something that I was super into.”
Landon is tackling a new version of 1990’s “Arachnophobia,” which was marketed by Disney as a “thrillomedy” because they were so insecure about releasing a horror movie. Landon says he’s still figuring out casting but the idea is to shoot the project this year. And, yes, they will be using real spiders.
“I actually met with a spider wrangler at Amblin a couple weeks ago, and he sort of brought all of these different species of spiders out and I consider myself fairly arachnophobic,” Landon said. “I kept putting this meeting off because I was scared of it. I didn’t want to do it. They saw it as exposure therapy. I finally did it and it was actually pretty cool. I was still horrified, but it was really cool.”
While he can’t say whether or not it’s a more straightforward reboot or a sequel, Landon did say: “I want the movie to be its own thing and not just be a sort of straightforward, here’s a carbon copy, because otherwise I really don’t know what the point is. Frank Marshall, he made that movie and it was great so why do that again?”
For the king of the modern horror-comedy, even an adaptation of an existing property will be unlike anything else. It has to be. That’s the Christopher Landon way.
“We Have a Ghost” is now streaming on Netflix.