The ghost in Clara’s Ghost is not the ghost of Clara Reynolds (Paula Niedert Elliott). It’s the ghost haunting Clara, a woman in white (Isidora Goreshter) only Clara can see and whose presence, over the course of the movie, grows stronger as Clara’s state of mind deteriorates. Whether one thing correlates with the other is the million-dollar question. In horror tradition, being nudged by a specter rarely does good things for one’s sanity. But in indie drama tradition, having a family isn’t especially good for mental health, either, and if you think the ghost is bad, wait until you meet Clara’s husband and children.
The film itself is a family affair starring the rest of the Elliott clan—Chris, Abby and Bridey (who also wrote and directed the thing). Chris plays Ted, Clara’s husband, while Abby and Bridey play their daughters, Julie and Riley. Ted, Julie, and Riley are famous: He’s an actor on the decline, and as children the ladies starred together in a Full House-style sitcom titled Sweet Sisters, which unsurprisingly means that as adults, they’re maladjusted, obnoxious brats. Ted’s no better, having been recently kicked off the set of a production for being a raging asshole. Meanwhile, Clara’s worst sin is that she’s mildly scatterbrained. (Also: She’s haunted.)
Clara’s Ghost assembles them all under Ted’s roof to celebrate the family dog’s birthday, which is like filling a liquor shaker with bourbon and wasps. They’re joined by the neighbor boy, Joe (Haley Joel Osment), now grown-up (at least compared to Julie, Riley, and even Ted), and of course the ghost, lingering at the film’s edges. Bridey splits the cast evenly between the sympathetic and the insufferable. On the side of the former: Clara, the dog and Joe. On the latter: Ted, Julie and Riley. In the middle, there’s the ghost, whose motives aren’t clear but whose actions are considerably less abrasive than most of the humans in the film. Maybe she’s there to possess Clara. Maybe she’s just there to torment the Reynolds. Or maybe she’s trying to teach poor Clara to speak up for herself.
Of these, the last is most likely. Ted pours contempt on his daughters, and they throw elbows back at him, but the three find unity in ganging up on Clara for her lack of star status, her eccentricities, her old coke habit. Ted, Julie and Riley mock each other, but they outright bully Clara, and all she wants is to keep a clean kitchen, to find her missing shoe, and to enjoy a nice, fruity glass of wine. She’s living her life as best she can, given that there’s an entity out there shaking the chandeliers in the living room and giving her the stink eye when she passes the local cemetery. Clara could act like an ass, and she’d have a pretty good excuse for it. Her family? They’re just entitled.
Bridey Elliot must love Hammer Horror movies—Clara’s Ghost feels like a classic horror movie with shades of Krisha and Listen Up, Philip, unnerving atmosphere layered with unbridled nastiness. There’s a suffocating quality to the film’s aesthetic, imparted by her choice to shoot in 4:3, which makes the frames feel like walls pressing in on the characters. It also makes the movie look like old television, and not necessarily in a bad way, either. It is, after all, a movie about television as an artifact of bygone times, back when people filmed in 4:3 and everything looked smaller on TV sets.
The ratio feels like a conscious rather than reflexive creative decision, as if Elliot wants to conjure the era Sweet Sisters hails from and append its visual qualities to a story of the present, where stardom’s toxicity is more easily gauged thanks to social media and pop culture’s slowly beginning to reject bad seeds instead of rewarding them on the basis of their genius. Ted had a career. Now he’s struggling to maintain it. That’s what you get for being a douchebag in 2018. You also get locked in your basement having a drunken seance with your daughters when your wife has had more than her fill of your never-ending collective harassment. Maybe having a pale wraith constantly hector you isn’t the worst of all evils.
Grim as Clara’s Ghost gets—it probably will not be quite grim enough for some—the film is ultimately about family reconciling against all odds through atrocious behavior. (It also suggests that the Elliott family matriarch, enjoying her first acting credit, has a real career path ahead of her should she choose to follow it.) The Elliotts, contrasted with the Reynolds, have impressive talent. It’s often said that going into business with family is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea, but Clara’s Ghost provides an exception to this particular rule.
Director: Bridey Elliott
Writer: Bridey Elliott
Starring: Paula Niedert Elliott, Chris Elliott, Bridey Elliott, Abby Elliott, Haley Joel Osment, Isidora Goreshter
Release Date: December 7, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.