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House With A Clock In Its Walls, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"An Eli Roth Film. You Know--For Kids"
4 stars

“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is a film that contains any number of unexpected sights—ranging from the dead rising from the grave to Cate Blanchett zapping a collection of evil pumpkins into goo with the help of a trusty magic wand—but the most astonishing one of them all comes right at the beginning when it is revealed that this PG-rated throwback to the fantasy films of the 1980s that Steven Spielberg used to oversee through his Amblin Entertainment production shingle was directed by none other than Eli Roth, the auteur of such savagely violent horror films as “Hostel” and “The Green Inferno.” However, my surprise is not due simply because of the notion of a guy known for making gory exploitation films now making something for a younger audience—after all, Joe Dante started out doing things like “Hollywood Boulevard” and “Piranha” for Roger Corman before moving on to the likes of “Gremlins,” “Explorers” and “Innerspace” back in the day. No, my surprise is due to the discovery that Roth, who in the past has demonstrated himself to be a monumentally clumsy and lazy filmmaker whose works have essentially served as the cinematic equivalent of a kid repeatedly showing you his chewed-up food at the dinner table, has actually made a halfway decent film for the first time in his career, a goofy horror-comedy that demonstrates far more wit and style in any given scene than he has been able to muster up in any of his previous efforts.

Based on the 1973 children’s book by John Bellairs, the film, set in 1955, opens as 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a quiet kid still reeling from the recent death of his parents in a car crash, traveling to the town of New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), an oddball who walks around everywhere in a kimono and who lives in a rambling house that would serve as the ideal model home if Tim Burton ever decided to design a housing development. It is soon revealed that Jonathan is a warlock and the house used to belong to his former partner in magic, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who came back from the war a changed man and who died, along with his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry), while attempting to create some kind of dastardly spell. One mysterious remnant of his efforts remains in the form of a clock that has been hidden somewhere within its walls that continues to tick away to some unknown but presumably nefarious purpose. With the aid of Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett)—who is introduced as a neighbor but who never seems to actually leave the house—Jonathan has become obsessed with finding the clock and discovering it purpose before it is too late.

Needless to say, Lewis thinks this is all kind of neat and soon he is studying in order to learn how to do magic himself. It is certainly easier than school, where his status as the outsider new kid is solidified when he gets picked last in gym class for teams, even after the kid on crutches. He thinks he has made a friend in popular kid Tarby (Sunny Suljic) but when that proves not to be the case, he tries to win the cool kid over with the promise of showing him some real magic. Desperate to impress, Lewis violates the one rule laid down by his uncle by liberating the most powerful book of spells in his collection—the one kept under lock and key—and using it to bring the dead back to life. Not surprisingly, this goes quite badly and results in Isaac returning from the grave with plans to use his dark magic to eradicate mankind from the face of the planet. This sets up the inevitable eclipse-centered showdown between the forces of good and bad magic in which there is the slight possibility that Lewis will get a chance to step up and use his newfound powers to save both the day and humanity.

Even after taking into consideration that the source material for this film predates the “Harry Potter” franchise by a good quarter-century or so, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is not exactly the most blazingly original of narratives—even the younger audiences that it is primarily aimed at will not be particularly stunned by most of the twists and turns of the story. However, this is one of those films in which the story being told is not as important as how it is being told and in this case, it is a success. The scenes set inside the titular house, where most of the action takes place, are filled with all kids of neat visuals ranging from obvious things like an anthropomorphic easy chair that bounds from room to room like an overgrown puppy to little background details like a stained glass painting whose image changes from moment to moment to oddities like the aforementioned jack-o-lanterns and a collection of automatons that springs creepily to life. Roth presents these elements with a flair that not even the most hardcore of auteurists could have possibly gleaned from his earlier work and with enough restraint—if that is quite the word—to keep them from overwhelming things. He also does a good job of maintaining the proper balance between the silly and the eerie and while it is not necessarily terrifying (though parents with particularly young or impressionable kids may want to think twice about seeing it), there are a couple of moments here and there that might spring uneasily to the minds of some viewers as they try to get to sleep.

The one real misstep in the film is that Lewis, our ostensible hero, is one of the least interesting things about it. This is not a slight on Vaccaro, whose performance is perfectly fine, but even when Lewis finally figures out his purpose and musters up the courage to save the day, he is still kind of bland and forgettable, especially when one compares him to the likes of Harry Potter, a character with a similar background but one conceived with far more detail and personality than has been afforded our hero here. Jack Black, on the other hand, is a character who exudes personality even when he is just sitting there doing nothing and in Jonathan, he has a role that ideally suited for his unique talents as an actor. With his arching eyebrows and weirdo line readings, he is practically a special effect all by himself and therefore fits in perfectly with his surroundings. The real surprise here, however, is Blanchett. I do not know what it was about the project that encouraged her to sign on—her heretofore unknown fascination with “Hostel: Part II,” the chance to engage in a never-ending barrage of mock-hostile banter with Jack Black, the chance to wear the nifty outfits whipped up by costume designer Marlene Stewart—but I am glad that she did because she is a blast throughout and finds just the right tone for the role that keeps it from slipping into outright camp.

“The House With the Clock in Its Walls” is not quite as good as the best of the 80s-era films that inspired it—it starts running out of steam towards the end as the humor is pushed to the side in order to make room for more special effects—but it does have a low-key charm to it that should resonate both with kids and nostalgic adults alike. If nothing else, the goofy-spooky vibe should make it an instant Halloween perennial—hey, if garbage like “Hocus Pocus” can suddenly become deemed a classic, anything is possible. More significantly, I can see it serving as a way for younger viewers to first dip their toes into the horror genre without things getting too intense for them. That said, let us all hope that families who do wind up seeing and enjoying this film do not elect to plunge further into the Eli Roth filmography—the shock from that would be enough to put them all off of horror, film and solid food for good.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31723&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/20/18 14:28:08
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User Comments

9/24/18 Bob Dog The most cursory of stories - I was bored throughout. 1 stars
9/21/18 Louise Jack Black is a pile of crap and so is this film. 1 stars
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  21-Sep-2018 (PG)
  DVD: 18-Dec-2018


  DVD: 18-Dec-2018

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