The House With A Clock In Its Walls (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
For older audiences, The House with a Clock in Its Walls will feel like a throwback to 1980’s-inspired kid-targeted suspense films, or something more associated with the “Goosebumps” books and television series.
From a technical standpoint, the movie looks great with some wonderful production design and costuming.
Jack Black is really good at being Jack Black, Cate Blanchett makes anything look effortless, and young Owen Vaccaro more than holds his own here.
The script is a bit of a letdown, with key moments landing with a thud and a big third act reveal quite disappointing.
For younger viewers (more single-digit age), this house might be a little too intense for them. Not so much in dialogue or violence, but more in the case of subject matter and imagery.
I am not sure that this changes my mind on Eli Roth as a director, but some will scratch their heads as to why the director of some uber-violent action and horror films, decided to make a kids film. At times, Roth seems at odds with himself.
Famed horror director Eli Roth, who some may remember as Sgt. Donny from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, has thrown us all a curve ball. The director of films such as Hostel, Hostel Part II, Cabin Fever, and this year’s throwaway Death Wish remake, among others, has seemingly gone all kid-friendly for his latest project – The House with a Clock in Its Walls.
Well, that is to say…as much as Roth can. Though rated PG, Roth’s new film is essentially a 1980s-style youth horror film, much more in line with something you would see on the old television anthology “Goosebumps.” In fact, this movie is more of a Goosebumps-style movie than that Jack Black movie was from a few years back.
Ironically, this project also stars Black, playing Jonathan Barnavelt, the uncle and now guardian to 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), sent to live with Jonathan following his parents’ unfortunate demise in a car crash. Wearing vintage aviator goggles and presenting as a kid who doesn’t fit in with pretty much anyone or anywhere, Lewis struggles to adjust to a new life in New Zebedee, Michigan. He loves reading the dictionary and is incredibly smart.
He bonds with Jonathan’s nosy, ubiquitous neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who insists everything is platonic between the two. We learn that each possess magic skills and despite Uncle Jonathan’s best efforts, his expansive three-story home shows off a lot of secrets – and magical ones at that.
Adapted from the first book in John Bellairs’ 12-novel series of stories about Lewis, at first, Roth takes a light and frothy tone to the story, capturing much of the mood and feel of a movie Gen-Xers can remember watching in their younger days.
This largely feels familiar to those of us in that demographic in many ways - the mood intensifies with musical cues, odd developments are left unexplained for a bit, and quirky, nutty dialogue keeps us on our toes. Black is settled and comfortable as the wacky uncle, while Blanchett gives instant credibility to the project, with her effortless, inviting turn as a motherly-like figure Lewis desperately needs.
Written by Eric Kripke, The House with a Clock in Its Walls uses that titular premise to create a mystery that, unfortunately, becomes increasingly underdeveloped and not all that interesting. It seems a former magician, home owner, and rival of sorts (Kyle MacLachlan) pulled an elaborate prank and Jonathan whiles away the nighttime hours doing whatever he can to find the location of the ticking clock noise echoing through his brain. This explains why dozens and dozens of clocks exist, but beyond that kitschy presentation – the reasons behind the hidden clock are rather nebulous and uninteresting.
A note for parents of young children: Roth infuses his film with some stark imagery and subject matter, which left me slightly surprised that the film earns a PG rating. There is no blood, no actual intense violence, and no cursing of any significance, but Roth ultimately cannot help who he is at the end of the day. As the movie goes along, he amplifies the intensity pretty strong when it comes to, for example, including a room full of dolls who play a part in the story, or having a discussion about axe murders, and a few other decisions which might make parents give pause to the youngest among us. This is not nightmare fuel necessarily, but some moments may shake kids here and there, especially those more accustomed to Disney and lighter subject matter when going to the movies.
For older kids and adults, this all goes down relatively smooth. The story doesn’t quite hold together and Roth loses some of the energy from the film’s opening act, in the hopes that chaos and mayhem will generate continual enthusiasm. But Black and Blanchett and an impressive performance from Vaccaro (the kid can cry convincingly and on demand it appears), keep this thing afloat.
Sure, The House with a Clock in Its Walls could have been a better film, but as a throwback pre-teen/teenage-oriented family thriller, Roth finds enough fun in Uncle Jonathan’s house to give this a cautioned recommendation.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Christian Calloway.
Director: Eli Roth
Written by: Eric Kripke
Based on the novel “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” by John Bellairs
Release Date: September 21, 2018