Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
There’s a unique kind of horror found within families. Inside jokes can become a cozy place to nestle insults. Old wounds and deepening resentments can be papered over with any new bit of family gossip or for any get together. But in the horror-comedy Clara’s Ghost, a brush with the potentially paranormal pushes a mild-mannered mom to lash out against the family that’s tradition is casually berating her.
The directorial debut of writer/helmer/actress Bridey Elliott, Clara’s Ghost centers on the Reynolds family as they reunite to celebrate the birthday of their beloved dog. This is a showbiz family, which means the richly decorated house is overflowing with ego and rivalries. Ted Reynolds (Chris Elliott) was once a big-name actor, but nowadays he’s a has-been battling for a recurring role on a web-series. Years before, his daughters Riley and Julie Reynolds (Bridey and Abby Elliott) were wildly famous child stars, similar to the Olsen twins. Now grown, Julie is a vain actress with a sketchy producer for a fiancé, while Riley is scraping by with celebrity appearances at Brooklyn bars and begging her parents for help with her bills. Whenever this trio comes together, they exchange stories about the biz along with biting remarks that prick at a pulsing jealousy. But no barbs are as harsh as those piled on Clara (Paula Niedert Elliott), a former Playboy bunny who is their doting wife and mother.
In intimate moments alone, Clara dances to melancholic music with silky sexuality, and it’s easy to imagine her as the smoking hot trophy wife on the arm of a popular star. Though still beautiful, sensual and caring, Clara’s regarded as little more than a joke to the family to whom she’s dedicated her life. While they banter and bicker about auditions, juice cleanses, and photo shoots, she is ruthlessly ignored. Her anecdotes earn sneers. Her dismay over a missing shoe gets only eye-rolls. Her claim to fame dismissively slut-shamed. She’s crying for help. She craves their attention, but not even her story about a ghost (an enchanting Isidora Goreshter) begging to be let in will garner their concern. That is until it nearly gets them killed.
This isn’t the kind of horror steeped in tension or spiked with jump scares. Instead, Bridey uses elements of the genre to scratch at the horror that lies within toxic family dynamics to create a dark comedy that bleeds with pain and vulnerability. Haunting is a private moment where a lonely Clara drunk-dials the family vineyard listed on the back of her wine bottle. She leaves a long, emphatic message championing their “fruity undertones” and wishing them well. Through it, we feel the sting of her isolation. A family dinner is torture, where Clara’s daughters and husband relish in their narcissism while wounding her with belittling jokes. Her embarrassment would be a death by a thousand cuts, if not for the ghost who urges Clara to revenge.
The horror focuses on the dark side of family ties. The comedy comes mostly from Bridey’s scathing look at showbiz. Each of the actors in the family is mocked for their superficiality, self-importance, and blatant disability to carry on a conversation about anything beyond themselves. We’re meant to cackle as Julie notes her “goal weights” for her bridesmaids, to cringe as Ted mocks Riley’s suicidal adolescence with a crass impersonation, and to do both when the pair mock her tell-all book — well, her tell-all “e-book” (“Hurtful!”). And what makes every blow hit harder is that Clara’s Ghost stars Elliot’s own family and is shot in her parents’ Connecticut home. Don’t mistake this for meaning the movie is autobiographical. But there are some similarities that add intrigue. For instance, Paula Niedert Elliott is the only family member who didn’t make her living as a performer. Nonetheless, she gives a performance that is riveting, heartbreaking, and brave.
While the other Eliotts get the jokes and to caper and snark, Paula is the throbbing, raw heart of Clara’s Ghost. Forlorn eyes scream to us behind a fragile smile. The need in her voice as she drunk dials vineyards is as heartbreaking as her earnestness as she urges her daughters to eat more eggplant because, “They say it literally melts cancer cells.” Her love for her family is as gruffly disregarded as this recommendation. And with each sling and arrow, our sympathy for her festers into rage. As her bright eyes grow cold and her smile slips into a slight sneer, music plays only she — and we — can hear. As her family obliviously gets high and mocks her supposed ghost, Clara plots. Then, this family gathering goes off the rails in a way unpredictable, poetic, haunting, yet ultimately satisfying.
In her directorial debut, Bridey has made a slippery psychological horror-comedy that begins with family and showbiz, then slides into an empathetic journey into female hysteria. We are silent witness to the abuse Clara suffers at the hands of those who love her. We — like her ghost — want to scream at her and shake her and force her to fight back for herself. In her performance, Paula gives us a heroine who is dazzling and damaged, kooky and captivating. Her real-life family supports her with performances that are blistering in their bitter humor. And Bridey deftly creates a heady atmosphere fueled by repressed hurt as much as drugs, in which an invading ghost can mean catharsis or catastrophe. In short, Clara’s Ghost is an exceptional first effort that is ambitious, moody, and alive with wit and emotion.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com