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One of the strangest films I’ve seen this year, Clara’s Ghost is a twisted, slippery little whisper of a thing that refuses to let itself be easily defined. Directed by Bridey Elliott, and starring her and her own family playing variations on themselves — including her dad, veteran comedian Chris Elliott, and her sister, former SNL regular Abby Elliott — it strikes veins both horrific and comedic, without ever quite settling down to any genre.
Funnily enough, the real revelation here is Paula Niedert Elliott, the director’s mother, who does not appear to be a professional actor, but has the central role as Clara, the anxious wife of somewhat-has-been comedian Ted Reynolds (played by guess who). In the opening scenes, she and Ted drive to their local police station in Old Lyme, Connecticut, so she can report a shoe missing. As the befuddled young cop taking the report tries to understand why this strange woman wants the police to track down a stray clog, Clara’s insistence on the matter’s urgency is weirdly compelling: We ourselves become briefly convinced that this lost shoe from Marshalls is a matter of national urgency.
That’s one of the film’s more comic scenes, but like much of the rest of the movie, it comes with an undercurrent of dread. Is Clara losing her mind? Has she always been this eccentric? And why is Ted just sitting outside in the car, dreaming of his next cocktail, while his wife makes a fool of herself to the cops?
But self-absorption rules this family, as we soon learn. Ted and Clara’s actress daughters Riley and Julie (played by Bridey and Abby Elliott, respectively) are coming home for the weekend, and during their Metro-North train ride, we sense the sisterly tension caused by the fact that one is a lot more famous than the other. On the train over, Riley asks Julie if she’d join her for a live Brooklyn gig that she really needs; Julie refuses, claiming it’s beneath them. Julie asks Riley not to Instagram the train selfie they just took; Riley refuses, saying testily, “Just giving people what they want.”
Back home, the competitiveness becomes even more poisonous. Ted has just been fired from a movie by Julie’s fiancé, and his interaction with the girls seems colored by a nutty mixture of parental support and professional pissiness: He’s determined to cut Julie down to size, though he seems to couch his actions in the guise of fatherly advice. Watching these people snipe and snip at one another is funny, but eventually, you may start to be weirded out by their pathological narcissism.
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Over the course of their booze- and weed-fueled evening, the family’s behavior gets stranger and stranger, along with the film’s style, as Elliott cuts in and out of scenes at odd points, and deploys a couple of truly bizarre montages that seem to veer between comedy, lyricism, and creepiness. Meanwhile, Clara’s hold on reality seems to grow ever more tenuous. She starts speaking to the ghost of a young girl, an allegedly mentally ill young woman who lived in their house more than a century ago. But the apparition only shows up sporadically, and doesn’t initially seem to have much bearing on the plot — leaving us to wonder whether this is more a symbolic specter than a real one. Clara’s Ghost, in other words, isn’t really a ghost story, which makes you wonder what Clara’s real ghost is.
For all the complicated unease it provokes, this really is a simple, unassuming movie. The cast is basically just the Elliotts, plus Haley Joel Osment (in a winning turn as the local pot dealer/handyman). The setting is their house and surrounding environs. The shots aren’t complex, the scenes aren’t elaborate; it’s the way they’re performed and juxtaposed that start to evoke something more profound. The director reportedly based much of the film on her own family’s oddball rituals and in-jokes, and the power dynamics between the characters play like self-aware riffs on what we might imagine the real-life Elliotts’ potential insecurities to be. I found myself wondering at various points if Chris Elliott really is this big a jerk in real life, and if Abby Elliott really is this full of herself. (One assumes not, since they agreed to be in this movie.)
But their behavior also works as an effective background against which to play Clara’s gathering psychic unease — the others are so wrapped up in their flamboyantly neurotic one-upmanship that they completely ignore the fact that mom is in the kitchen, talking to ghosts and cutting and recutting watermelon all night. And it also makes you wonder if she might simply be the receptacle for all of their negative energy — the one who has to absorb the ill will these professional performers barely keep hidden. Clara’s Ghost doesn’t answer any of these questions, leaving us in a state of edgy, itchy discomfort. For such a tiny, modest film, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Sisters Bridey and Abby Elliott followed in the show-business footsteps of their father, absurdist comic Chris Elliott, and grandfather, the late radio star Bob Elliott. While Abby’s best known for her work on television as a second-generation Saturday Night Live cast member and as Brooke von Weber on Bravo’s Odd Mom Out, Bridey turned to film, with roles in Sundance darling Fort Tilden and 2017’s Battle of the Sexes. Bridey, Abby, and Chris Elliott have been individually entertaining their own niche audiences for years, but they’d never actually all worked together before, which was one impetus for Bridey to write a script that would make the family an ensemble cast and — in classic Elliott-family fashion — dredge up everyone’s insecurities and darkest fears for a laugh.
Clara’s Ghost unfolds like a twisted comic-horror version of the Eugene O’Neill play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which a family of four devolves into hysterics and accusations in one seemingly endless, existential day. In Bridey’s version, which also marks her directorial debut, beleaguered mother Clara (played by her real mother Paula Niedert Elliott) becomes the butt of her actor husband and daughters’ jokes. Throughout the day, they all drink to excess, wreck the kitchen, and jab at each other’s emotional sore spots at the dinner table, while Clara begins communicating with a ghost that only she can see. The film, loosely based on their real lives and shot in the family’s actually haunted Connecticut home in Old Lyme, morphs from off-kilter comedy to an anxiety-inducing drama of intermittent horrors that cut through toxic family dynamics. (Oh, and Haley Joel Osment plays a townie who kisses their mother.) In a conversation with Vulture, Bridey and Abby Elliott spoke about facing their insecurities for art, Elliott-family fun nights, and living in a Nut Museum.
Your film has these ghost elements, so it’s a little bit horror, but also a little bit comedy. Yet it’s not technically what I would call a horror-comedy. It’s almost like a Surrealist tragedy that just happens to be funny. What were the influences for that tone?
Bridey: I was just taking a gamble. I knew it wasn’t a horror-comedy, What We Do in the Shadows or something. It’s not this big comedy that’s also scary. It’s a blend. There’s a Cassavetes movie called Opening Night where Gena Rowlands plays an actress who sees one of her fans get hit by a car, and that fan begins haunting her. That was a big influence, as well as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, which was also shot in the same place [in nearby Old Saybrook, Connecticut].
Abby: So much of the comedy is coming from us doing bits and joking around and dad doing his shtick, and while it’s funny, it’s also super grounded and definitely tragic.
Bridey: The comedy is seeded in darkness and that’s what makes it … [laughs] sad! And dark. It’s a lot of ego poking and prodding, especially for our dad. Which I think is also indicative of our own relationships with comedy. It’s complicated. Dad does it; our grandfather did it. There’s this sense that we really couldn’t do anything else with our lives.