Written by: Eric Kripke (screenplay), John Bellairs (novel)
Directed by: Eli Roth
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, and Owen Vaccaro
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You'll see, things are quite different here..."
At first blush, Eli Roth feels like the absolute last person you’d expect to helm an adaptation of John Bellair’s childhood fantasy novel The House with a Clock in its Walls, much less one that’s been ushered to the screen by Amblin Entertainment. But on second thought, maybe it’s not so far-fetched , really: after all, his efforts have been nothing if not marked by an obvious juvenile streak, not to mention driven by a nostalgia for a bygone era of genre filmmaking, much like a lot of Amblin’s output. So it comes as no surprise, then, that his take does actually work for the most part: sure, you’re not going to see him slinging around disemboweled guts and dangling eyeballs, but there are plenty other opportunities for him to exploit other bodily fluids and other gross possibilities. It’s perhaps just as demented as his other work, albeit in a much different—but similarly charming—way: Roth’s infectious enthusiasm has never been in question throughout his career, and The House with a Clock in its Walls is no different in that respect.
In 1955, 10-year-old Louis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) loses his parents to a car accident and has to be shipped off to Michigan to live with his weirdo uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Almost immediately, it’s an odd arrangement: not only does Jonathan seem very irresponsible (“you can eat chocolate chip cookies for dinner until you throw up for all I care,” he exclaims at one point with a nonchalant glimmer in his eye) but the house also just seems off. The paintings—and other fixtures—seem to be alive, while a mutant snake lurks within its bowels, threatening to be unleashed if Jonathan isn’t careful. Kids at school insist the place is haunted, much to Louis’s dismay: it’s bad enough that he’s an oddball himself, but now he’s stuck living in a house where his uncle and an eccentric nature (Cate Blanchett) spend all hours of the night searching the house for a clock has been hidden within the walls by the previous owner (Kyle MacLachlan).
The film splits its first 45 minutes or so between accounting for this peculiar behavior and documenting Louis’s difficult adjustment at school. Because he wears oversized goggles and carries himself in an awkward manner, he’s a natural target for bullying, at least until popular kid Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic) befriends him. In his desperation to keep his new friend, Louis starts to spill secrets, specifically that his uncle is actual a warlock who’s teaching him spells; what’s more, there’s a forbidden book that’s been locked away by Jonathan. It’s his uncle’s one rule, which naturally means it’s destined to be broken when Louis and Tarby swipe it and unwittingly perform a necromancy spell that literally raises hell—and a potential apocalypse—on earth.
Roth is careful to build to this moment, where the entirety of the plot mostly begins to lock in place; up until this point, The House with a Clock in its Walls is appropriately, playfully creepy, as both Louis and the audience find themselves curiously traipsing through this bizarre world. While it does feel like the early-going could use at least one rousing set-piece, it’s nicely atmospheric at least: Roth taps into that certain je ne sais quoi of a childhood Halloween, when the holiday is weird, wild, and undoubtedly wonderful. Ornate pumpkins line the path to a picturesque, gothic house that’s fit for any number of campfire tales and will be utterly enchanting to the latest generation of monster kids weaned on this film.
They’ll also be greeted with distinct, vintage Americana vibes: where most of Roth’s work takes inspiration from the 70s and 80s grindhouse circuit, this one is a throwback to the glory days when monster movies were monster movies. Between the gorgeous, vibrant color palette and classical blocking, Roth has crafted a world you just want to live in: this is a place that’s perpetually splashed in an autumn glow and where a gloriously antiquated movie theater boasts unabashed B-movie titles like Space Men from Pluto. There’s a necessary innocence to it that strikes the perfect chord for a kid’s movie, even one that eventually treads to some unexpectedly disturbing places.
Most of the trouble is unleashed with a witch’s hour resurrection spell performed in a graveyard that sends The House with the Clock in its Walls on a breathless, rollicking path. Both the demented potential of both the original text and Roth’s own imagination gush out here, sending the audience on a funhouse thrill ride boasting gnarled corpses, fantastic creatures, and elaborate, boisterous set-pieces, all of them wrapped up in a childlike sense of whimsy. Roth has spent most of his career with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek in an attempt to push the envelope with a sort of puerile, edgelord sensibility, and he channels that into something more pure and genuinely fun here: he might not be able to stage a scene where a bunch of college students shit themselves in their cannibal prison, but he does have a recurring gag where one of Jonathan’s hedge monsters takes an explosive dump, which is more age-appropriate in my opinion.
Maybe less appropriate is the unexpected mean streak rumbling throughout. As MacLachlan’s rival warlock reemerges with the sinister details surrounding his death and resurrection, The House with the Clock in its Walls follows a twisted path through the gnarled woods, both literally and figuratively. The emergence of a literal doomsday clock and the revelation of an occult presence push the film into some dark places—and that’s before we learn the villain has manipulated Louis by taking the form of his dead mother at night. Along the way, Roth also conjures up one of the most genuinely unsettling images of his career thus far but is also careful to pump the brakes: The House with the Clock in its Walls nimbly walks the delicate line between traumatizing and cheerfully spooky. Any childhood gateway horror movie worth its salt will feature some genuinely creepy stuff, and this one has plenty; however, they also need to be equally charming and fun, so as to entice a return to the genre.
The House with a Clock in its Walls maintains that balance, all without pandering explicitly to kids. Obviously, they’re the target audience, but it’s not insulting about it, thanks in large part to an invested cast who meet the material on its level without looking down on it. Black has proven to be a nice fit for this sort of role in the past, and it holds true here, too; once again, he adopts the persona of an immature kid masquerading as an adult, as Jonathan is a bit reckless in his single-minded quest to discover the house’s clock. Like Bill Murray in Meatballs, he’s somehow both the first and last person you’d want to be in charge of a child: you never doubt his genuine affection for his nephew, even when he’s teaching him dangerous warlock spells or engaging in juvenile banter with his neighbor.
Blanchett fires it right back as Florence Zimmerman, whose kooky façade winds up being a front for a genuinely moving performance from the actress: like Louis, she also has to overcome the tragic loss of family members, and Blanchett provides the film’s necessary gravitas in the face of MacLachlan (who’s having a ton of fun in old-age makeup) and Renee Elise Goldsberry’s scenery-chewing turns as the villainous husband and wife duo. Roth rightfully allows these personalities bounce off of each other, with Vaccaro slinking in between with a rather measured, unassuming presence as Louis: he’s weird and bright-eyed but not too precocious, a performance that’s reflective of the film as a whole.
To that end, The House with a Clock in its Walls is cute without resorting to cloying displays: it’s sweet but not saccharine and should serve as a fine entry point to a new generation of horror fans. While it isn’t exactly any kind of revelation for me, I appreciate it, especially as a long-time fan and staunch defender of Roth, who definitely proves he has chops beyond blood, gore, and frat humor here. Watching it, I realized that I’ll personally take a sincere, spirited romp for kids over the uninspired tween horror dreck we get on a more regular basis: where I find it hard to imagine anyone latching onto the genre after the likes of Slender Man, I can easily see how The House with a Clock in its Walls could leave a mark on an impressionable kid, all without alienating adults. Put it this way: in the future, if my own son decides this is his new favorite movie and watch it on a loop, I won’t be that upset, especially since I never imagined we’d be able to possibly bond over an Eli Roth movie before he’s a teenager.
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