Writer/director Bridey Elliott comes from a very talented family. Her father is Chris Elliott, of Cabin Boy and Late Night with David Letterman fame. Her sister Abby is a former Saturday Night Live cast member with a lengthy resume of subsequent film and TV work. Bridey herself has appeared on hit shows like Silicon Valley and in movies such as Battle of the Sexes and Hello, My Name is Doris. Imagine these funny family members getting together to make a ghost story. That’s Clara’s Ghost, a comedic chiller that’s really quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It screened at Cinepocalypse 2018.
The family connections don’t stop. The film was shot in the Elliott home in Old Lyme, CT, and casts an additional family member — mom Paula Neidert Elliott — in the lead role. She plays Clara Reynolds, the only one in the Reynolds clan who’s not in show business. (Art is imitating life here.) Her husband Ted (Chris) is an actor whose career is in decline. Daughters Julie (Abby) and Riley (Bridey) are former child stars, now struggling to have successful careers as adults. Julie’s is going slightly better than Riley’s.
All of them convene at the family home, when something strange begins occurring. Clara starts seeing the ghost of a young woman, and is disturbed by the visions. Everyone else is busy drinking, cracking jokes, and getting high, thanks to visiting weed dealer pal Joe (Haley Joel Osment).
Clara’s Ghost is not the most narratively-conscious film – a choice made on purpose. The story plays out more like a series of individual moments allowing us to observe the dysfunctional family dynamics as Clara’s haunting occurs. There’s an emergency trip to the veterinarian, a search for a missing shoe, and a scene where Julie re-enacts a recent audition for her critical father.
Through all of these things, we realize that Clara is surrounded by narcissists. Ted, Julie, and Riley are caught up in their own careers, their own images, their own lives. None of them notice that she is troubled by something. The ghost is, ironically, the only one who truly sees Clara.
As you might expect given the comedic talent involved, Clara’s Ghost is often very funny. Julie and Riley engage in some hilariously vacuous conversations about everything from plastic surgery to pop music, while Ted seems to enjoy bickering with his family members because it gives him a chance to display his caustic wit. The heavy reliance on humor is used to make abrupt shifts into chiller territory more pronounced. Nowhere is this better utilized than a well-constructed scene in which Clara is approached by the ghost while the others dance like goofballs to the song “MacArthur Park” in another part of the house.
Again, the lack of a strong narrative might make Clara’s Ghost challenging for some viewers, and the film would have benefited from about ten minutes of tightening. That said, if you can get into its vibe, you’ll find a tonally-unique, surprisingly pointed examination of a woman struggling to stand out within her own family. All four of the Elliotts give strong performances, and because they’re related in real-life, the authentic chemistry gives the picture a major boost.