Which is scarier, the horror of the supernatural or the family variety? In this case, we are definitely going with family. The Reynolds clan is especially disturbing, because they are presented as unambiguous meta analogs of the director’s own famous fam in screenwriter-director Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost (trailer here), opening this Friday in Los Angeles.
Clara Reynolds never had much luck in the business, so she is used to being ignored and belittled, particularly by her husband but also by her daughters. Currently, Clara’s daughter Julie is the biggest star in the family, much to the burning resentment of her sister Riley, with whom she co-starred in an Olsen Twins style sitcom during their youth. Even their father Ted is jealous of Julie’s success. He was once a big TV star, but he just talked himself out of a potentially recurring role on her current show with his unreasonable demands.
With her wedding (to the producer who fired Dad) fast approaching, Julie has even more license to be high-strung and high-maintenance. Frankly, only Ollie, the family dog, and Joe, the family drug-dealer (the sisters’ old high school classmate) exert any kind of rational, calming influence, especially when Clara starts seeing the ghost of Adelia, a former resident of their old New England-style Connecticut home.
Bridey Elliott is more concerned with family dysfunction than hauntings, but the former is so excruciatingly uncomfortable, it approaches the downright terrifying. Yet, the business involving Adelia’s increasing spectral control over Clara is surprisingly creepy. Indeed, it is just impossible to ever feel comfortable during the film, for a host of reasons.
Nevertheless, it is all still archly amusing. Chris Elliott probably does his funniest work since There’s Something About Mary as the vain, arrogant, self-centered Ted Reynolds. His daughters Abbey and Bridey really do seem like siblings with all kinds of rivalry and baggage souring their relationship. The casting of Haley Joel Osment as likably schlubby Joe is downright inspired (and it also gives the film one degree of separation from The Sixth Sense). However, Paula Niedert Elliott, the Elliott matriarch, is the show-stopper as Clara, the Reynolds matriarch. It is a carefully layered performance, with her outward passivity masking all kinds of neuroses, under which we can see hints of even deeper, darker simmering emotions.
Outsiders might wonder why the Elliott family would make a film that is sure to stir all kinds of gossipy speculation, but it is painfully obvious why the Reynoldses would. They must abide by what fame demands. As an added bonus, the film also stirs all kinds of 1980s nostalgia, starting with the awesome retro-looking one sheet. Cinematographer Markus Mentzer gives it an eerie, hazy look reminiscent of “prestige” horror from the early years of the decade. Of course, the mere presence of Chris Elliott brings a flood of memories from his glory Eighties years on the Letterman Show, back when it was still funny (remember this one?).
It is hard to describe the vibe of Clara’s Ghost, but it is deeply unsettling, precisely because Bridey Elliott has the scathing family comedy and supernatural elements working in concert rather than at cross-purposes. If you had to live with these people, you would probably go nuts too, just like Clara maybe sort of does, or perhaps not. Equally outrageous and insidious, Clara’s Ghost is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (12/7) at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles and the Highlands Ranch in Colorado.