One of the main reasons that I love doing film festival coverage is the discovery of new voices. If you consider the end of year lists that Jon and Kim produce annually, a good number of them are independent films heralding exciting new talent, or tackling unique subjects in fresh, unorthodox ways. Film critics live for the opportunity to discover the next great classic.
Unfortunately none of this applies to Clara’s Ghost, which recently screened as part of the 2018 Cinepocalypse Film Festival.
The debut feature from triple threat Bridey Elliot (daughter of Chris Elliot) is well directed, but the narrative is so threadbare and the characters are so grating that watching the film is tantamount to torture. This is especially true for genre fans, who are at risk of being suckered in by the title and the vaguely ominous plot synopsis which suggests that the matriarch of a privileged Hollywood family is being possessed by an otherworldly spectre.
Don’t be fooled, however: Clara’s Ghost is nothing more than an unfunny satirical drama about an extremely unlikeable family of narcissistic drunks.
The opening scenes establish the film’s mildly erratic tone as Clara Reynolds (Paula Niedert Elliott) directs her husband Ted (Chris Elliot) to park on the abandoned shoulder of a dark country road and then on to the police station in search of…her missing shoe. Clara‘s inability to acknowledge that this behaviour is odd or self-indulgent immediately paints her as a slightly unhinged protagonist; in fact, she is frequently presented as overwhelmed and out of control. This is never more true than when she’s being ganged up on by her husband and two adult daughters, blonde Julie (Abby Elliot) and brunette Riley (Bridey Elliot).
The plot of the film is relatively straightforward: Julie and Riley have traveled home to Connecticut to celebrate the birthday of Ollie, the family dog, with their parents (Cue laughter at this ostentatious display of wealth and privilege). Both daughters and their father are showbiz veterans, each having obtained varying degrees of success so despite the fact that nearly all of it is in the past, each continues to act haughty and superior, especially around Clara. The family dynamic is best described as a combative mix of WASP-y privilege, entitlement and sarcastic, cutting quips. Throw in a ludicrous amount of alcohol and drugs and the single evening narrative is highly combustible.
Elliot’s screenplay has the potential to be a solid character study. She capitalizes on the casting of her real life family to generate narrative believability while simultaneously providing them with an excuse to play outlandish, caricaturized versions of themselves. As a creative exercise – one that clearly thinks it is a hilariously clever comedy – it should work.
Unfortunately the Reynolds clan are completely insufferable and, as a result, so is the film surrounding them. The only mildly sympathetic character is the local drug dealer played by Haley Joel Osment (continuing his recent career revival), but a small cameo can’t sustain an 80 minute feature. The vast majority of the run time is spent in the company of unlikeable characters who are neither endearing, nor funny, even if the film treats them as if they are. This is not enjoyable at all.
As for the titular ghost? It is little more than a McGuffin. It remains unclear if the ghost is the legitimate spectre of the house’s former inhabitant or simply a symptom of Clara‘s increasing disillusionment with her entitled family (and is therefore unimportant to the film’s outcome). The ghost never truly becomes a driving factor in the film, not even in the last act when Clara‘s bizarre behaviour reaches its apex, which some critics have laughably compared to last year’s mother! In this way the ghost is simply another disappointment.
“The vast majority of the run time is spent in the company of unlikeable characters[..]”
Alas Clara’s Ghost contains absolutely no horror and very little of it can be construed as comedy. While Elliot has the technical chops as a director and I look forward to her future directorial efforts, her misguided decision to write and cast her first feature with members of her family smacks of nepotism.
I wish that I had kinder things to say, but Clara’s Ghost is genuinely unpleasant to watch.
Clara’s Ghost screened at the 2018 Cinepocalypse festival at the Music Box theatre in Chicago. Check out more of Nightmare on Film Street’s Cinepocalypse coverage here!