Filmmaker Christopher Landon loves a good scare. But while the man behind such contemporary horror hits as five (!!) of the “Paranormal Activity” films, “Happy Death Day,” “Freaky,” and “Viral” is best associated with his terrifying stuff, he’s got other tricks and treats on his mind.
Landon’s latest film, the Netflix outing “We Have a Ghost,” which he wrote and directed, smacks of horror — it follows a family, including Anthony Mackie, Erica Ash, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, and Niles Fitch, who move into a new house and discover it comes complete with a ghost, played by David Harbour — it’s also a bit more family-friendly, certainly funny, and driven by ideas about what happens when something gets big on the internet. It’s another evolution for Landon, who seems more than ready to subvert expectations when it comes to what he’s interested in making.
Landon dug the source material, Geoff Manaugh’s 2017 short story “Ernest,” plus the possibility to spin a classic horror trope into something a bit sweeter (what if you had a ghost, but you became friends?). “Geoff’s story is so cool, it’s very matter-of-fact, and I was very taken by this fresh take on an old ghost story,” Landon said. “I really loved the social media aspect of it as well, and how this family becomes overnight famous.”
Social media? That’s scary, too! “Obviously, it was this thing that was supposed to bring us together, and initially it did — until it didn’t,” Landon said. “I think it scares me how divisive it is. It just feels like it’s now designed to shove people into their corners. It’s engendered such a strong sense of tribalism. The world just felt a little bit sort of nicer and smaller before it came along.”
But the storyteller in Landon, well, he can’t get enough. Just before Landon hopped on Zoom, he had read Kevin Roose’s instantly viral New York Times article about chatting with Bing’s new AI chatbot. “If you haven’t read the article, you have to, and then you have to read the transcript, because that’s where the real meat on the bone is,” Landon said. “It literally told him that his marriage is false, he needs to leave his wife! It’s so fucking crazy. But I loved it, as a writer, I loved it.”
So, for someone like Landon, are there any limits to the kind of horror he’s willing to put on the screen? “If you asked me that question 10 years ago, I would have had a very different answer,” Landon said.
What changed? He’s a parent now, with two sons, aged six and three. “You have kids, and you start to see things differently, and you also start to not want to put certain things out into the world. There’s really just a certain kind of violence, like a realistic brutality, that I have a hard time dealing with now, specifically if it involves kids, that’s kind of a no-no thing.”
Landon laughed, recalling an early meeting involving one of his “Paranormal Activity” films. “Someone [at the studio] presented us with a chart, and it was like, these are the acceptable things that you can do and the things you can’t do,” he recalled. “They were designated in a specific order, and at the very top was, you can’t kill a dog, and then under that was a baby, and 10 down, was a cat. Our priorities as a society are very fucked up because ‘dog’ is above ‘baby.'” He laughed again. “But I also understand that. I’m a dog lover!”
He added, “I really do like making people feel kind of good. Not one hundred percent good, because I still have a dark side and I still like to make movies that are a little bit fucked up. … I think it’s the cynicism that I kind of now have removed myself from. I just don’t really feel like partaking in that anymore.”
Another product of fatherhood that feeds directly into his work: his relationship with his father, the beloved late actor Michael Landon.
“Once I had kids of my own, I really started to examine what it means to be a dad,” he said. “There’s a lot of that in ‘We Have a Ghost,’ the complexities of father-son relationships, especially when kids reach a certain age and their relationship with their parents begin to change. There’s a lot of that in the movie, of me unpacking my relationship with my dad. My dad died when I was 16, so I never got to have the adult conversations with him, and so this is, kind of in a weird way, my way of doing that.”
Asked if he ever goes back to watch old interviews with his father, Landon said he does — with another audience member by his side. “My oldest son has started to show a real interest in it, because he’s beginning to understand the concept of celebrity and he didn’t get to meet my dad,” he said. “So that’s the only way I can introduce him, weirdly, through photos, but also through the fact that I can go on YouTube and pull up a gazillion things. I’m trying to, at an early age, piece together the man that he really was versus the person that he portrayed on TV. It’s been kind of a strange journey.”
Talk of his father does eventually turn to the recently revitalized debate on nepotism in Hollywood. Landon, who has been working in Hollywood for 25 years — nearly a decade longer than the 16 years he spent with his dad, who died of cancer in 1991 — is clear-eyed on the topic.
“What is obviously baked in and should be presented without saying is that there’s privilege, of course, there’s total privilege,” he said. “I get it when people get pissed off because they see a celebrity’s kid who just steps out of high school and is like, keys to the kingdom, have a great time, here’s a million jobs. Wonderful for them. Great. Enjoy your privilege. … My privilege has been an extension of many other things, predominantly that I’m a white male more than anything. And, let’s be real, my dad wasn’t making calls from the grave on my behalf. And it’s not a thing that I talked about, so when I walked into a room to pitch something, I wasn’t ‘Michael Landon’s son.'”
Landon has leveraged that privilege in other ways, too. The filmmaker came out early in his career, aware that it might impact his work going forward. Along the way, he’s championed other queer voices.
“What I have done over the course of my career is try to find other queer artists, storytellers, and filmmakers, and I try to amplify them,” he said. “I try to work directly with them, because I really do want to help see those people succeed, because I know that there is sometimes a barrier there as well. I experienced a fair amount of bias going into certain rooms and trying to get certain jobs. I remember I had a studio exec once, we were talking about casting, and he told me, ‘You wouldn’t know what a beautiful woman is.’ And I was like, come again?”
Landon’s career has taken him down plenty of avenues, not just in terms of content, but the ways in which his films have been released. He’s done it all: massive theatrical releases, streaming-only offerings, the gamut. Where does he fall on the debate as to how movies should be released?
“I don’t think there really is much of a debate to be had,” the filmmaker said. “It’s up to the studios to ultimately decide what they feel is cinema-worthy, but I just think every movie should have its chance at least to shine independently. I do not believe in the simultaneous release model. I’ve been through it myself, so I’m a little biased. There’s just too much money to be made in the theatrical world, it is the ultimate launchpad, it’s the ultimate advertisement for a film. Those people who were going to watch it at home will still watch it at home. They’ll just do it a few weeks later.”
As for the recent resurgence in mid-budget horror films doing big biz at the box office, like “Smile” and “Barbarian,” Landon is all in.
“It’s definitely not a surprise to me,” he said. “They like to play this sort of shock game, but it does seem like horror doesn’t go away. It just kind of evolves and people’s tastes in it evolve a bit. I don’t think it’s any accident that in a ‘post-COVID’ — I’m putting air quotes around that — world that horror has had this very big moment again. There’s still a lot of unprocessed anxiety and fear, and that’s always the best place to deal with it.”
Speaking of anxiety and fear, what about the concept of “elevated horror,” a term that continues to be bandied about when talking about what good horror films are? Landon is more heated on that topic.
“I mean, ‘elevated horror’ is a term that horror fans despise. We despise it just because it’s a back-handed phrase and it’s often misused,” he said. “I don’t know what ‘elevated horror’ is because it’s so subjective. And hasn’t it existed all along? I mean, couldn’t you call ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Exorcist’ ‘elevated horror’? Yeah, I hate that fucking term, and it’s used a lot, and it drives me crazy. Sometimes it’s just a budget thing or a casting thing or a conceptual thing. What elevates anything? Is it the craft? Are there ‘elevated rom-coms’? Are there ‘elevated action’ movies? Why aren’t we calling other things ‘elevated’?”
“Elevated” or not, Landon has made a number of great horror films, scary and funny and inventive stuff, but as an avowed “Happy Death Day” fan, I’m a bit biased about my favorite. When I asked Landon if there was anything I could personally do to ensure the creation of a third film, he joked, “You could write a check?”
While Landon’s second “Death Day” feature, “Happy Death Day 2U” was well-received and did well financially (it made nearly $65 million on a $9 million budget), it didn’t do quite as well as its predecessor (which made $125.5 million on a less than $5 million budget). Landon thinks that was why Universal didn’t jump at a third feature, though he did share there was a period of time when NBCUniversal’s streaming arm, Peacock, expressed interest in making the film.
“They were like, oh, let’s make this an event for our streaming platform, which made a shit ton of sense to me, but then that kind of weirdly just vanished,” Landon said. “[Star] Jessica Rothe and I both have talked about it a lot publicly, how we both really want to do it. [Producer] Jason Blum has talked about it a lot as well. But I just think that it’s been very hard to get the studio to get excited about it. I get it, it’s a business and they’re doing what they do, but we’re all here and willing to do it.”
One thing that wouldn’t need to be ironed out: the actual idea for the film. “I have a whole movie! It’s not even an idea. I pitched the entire movie to [Universal] and they loved it,” Landon said. “That was the funny part. They were like, oh my god, that’s so unexpected and so cool. It’s not dependent, it’s not set in the same day as the previous films, so it could be made now, or in two years or three years. It would still work. But the trickier thing too, and in fairness to them, it’s a bigger idea than the previous two films, so it would be a more expensive movie.”
Landon’s other big horror franchise, “Paranormal Activity,” is also in a state of flux. Landon wrote five films for the found-footage franchise (and directed 2014’s “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones”), including 2021’s “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin,” but he seems to be moving away from the series.
“We made one during COVID, and it was one of those things that just kind of happened, and I had no intention of even really being involved because I was like, oh, I’m done with that franchise, I really don’t want to do it,” he said. “And then I had this weirdo idea about a fake Amish community and we ended up making the movie. I mean, it’s a franchise. They’re always going to make another one. I don’t see how they don’t, I just don’t know what they’re planning, and I highly doubt I’ll be involved anymore.”
As for what’s next for Landon, the horror stuff is still coming, but he’s got some other ideas, too.
“I would like to make a big fantasy adventure movie, I have a soft spot for this kind of stuff,” Landon said. “I would like to do a nice, Sundance-y, quiet drama and tone it down for a second. As I get older, I think I just am more drawn into stuff that feels really character-driven. But I’m also a bit of a commercial whore, so I still like a hook, I like a thing that grabs the audience, and I try to use these things as weird little like Trojan horses to shove personal stuff into. There’s just so many different things that I want to do, and I certainly want to keep challenging myself to do different stuff, because it is easy to get labeled a certain way and just be that guy. I’d rather not be that guy.”
“We Have a Ghost” will start streaming on Netflix on Friday, February 24.