IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 106 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1955: Lewis Barnavelt loses his parents and brother in a car crash and is sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan. There, while struggling to fit in at school, he gradually discovers that the home is enchanted and that his uncle is actually a warlock. However, the house used to belong to Isaac Izard, another wizard who, before his death, left a mysterious clock ticking in the walls of the house. Lewis wants to participate in the ways of magic, but for some reason Jonathan seems desperate to find this clock….
I expect that The House With A Clock In Its Walls [which is no doubt being compared to Goosebumps but isn’t quite as frantically paced and CGI-filled] is already being talked about as a “gateway” film for horror fans who are also parents and who want to gradually get their kids into the dark and scary stuff but don’t want to traumatise the little dears. I guess my journey as a youngster into horror was a bit different to that of many kids today – my parents didn’t like horror much at all so never tried to get me into it though they had no bones about me seeing a re-release of Jaws [which they didn’t consider to be horror until they saw it] in the cinema, nor the first two Indiana Jones films which contain nasty and scary moments that would probably struggle to make their way into a ‘12A’/ ‘PG-13’ film today, let alone a ‘PG’. What happened with me was that I was fascinated by a book about horror movies that my parents had been given, so I illicitly [sneaking downstairs late at night] watched most of the black and white Universal horrors during a season of them on TV, then moved on to the Hammers which were often shown and which are a little bit stronger, then discovered that one of the video shops near me was incredibly lenient at letting youngsters rent ‘15’ and ‘18’ rated films – and that was that. My parents disapproved but seemingly saw no point in trying to stop me.
I doubt that Eli Roth’s latest film will ever be regarded as a classic “gateway” film like, say, Gremlins, but I’d say that it should still be a reasonably good viewing experience for parents to watch with their kids. There’s a bit of creepy atmosphere, two mild jumps, and some mildly scary encounters with things like living jack-o-lanterns, balanced out by a very kid-relatable story including that old stalwart – a child hero whose parents are killed, easy but effective short hand for making our protagonist more vulnerable and telling little ones right away that the world can be a nasty place. In fact there’s very little that’s original in the story at all and I’m sure some will see it as partly rehashing Harry Potter and others, though in fact John Bellairs’s novel was written in 1973. The question I asked myself when the news broke that Roth was going to direct this film was how on earth was he going to fit in his love of bloodshed and his rather uncomfortable obsession with torture? Well, he doesn’t even try, and seems to be quite enjoying himself attempting to deliver a chiller for the whole family, though he tends to struggle with tonal balance, deliberately goofy moments [look, a topiary griffin that shits leaves not once but twice] often feeling like they come from a different movie rather than the same one, while Jack Black may still possess his considerable charisma but falls back on all those familiar ticks and mannerisms that have become rather tiresome, and often appears to be acting past other cast members rather than with them.
So poor Lewis probably wants as normal a childhood as possible after the death of his parents, but soon discovers he’s in line for anything but right from when he first meets his uncle on a bus wearing a kimono. He’s delighted that Jonathan seems to have no rules and is happy to give him chocolate chip cookies [my kind of father] for dinner instead of something more substantial, but is rather perturbed by things like the clocks everywhere, the chair that seems to be alive, and the purple octopus [it was once a snake] locked in a cupboard [I hope it gets fed]. Plus the house is one of those great movie houses that are far bigger inside than appears to be so from the outside, Space often seems to fold in on itself and as soon as you think you get your bearing,s something comes along like a moving stainglass window to throw you off balance again. The production design by Jon Hutman here is excellent, full of opulence, intriguing, uncanny details, and just a touch or two of steampunk. Lewis annoys neighbour Mrs. Hanchett with his saxophone playing at three in the morning, but another neighbour, Florence Zimmerman, spends a lot of time round his house even though the two like to trade insults of the kind of: “I’d give you a nasty look, but you’ve already got one”. Black and Cate Blanchett [whom I thought would have hammed up this part but doesn’t] are fun in these scenes even if Black doesn’t seem to be focusing on her. Anyway, it seems that both characters are practitioners of magic and Lewis wants to be one too.
For a while the film alternates Lewis learning wizardry with Lewis’s troubles at school where he’s an outcast, and not just because he constantly sports goggles like his hero Captain Midnight. Unfortunately, in an effort to impress school friend Tarby Corrigan, and spurred on by the ghost of his mother, the rather unhealthily precocious [he likes to quote dictionary entries for fun] Lewis does the one he’s been instructed not to do – open a specific cupboard – and decides to raise the dead. The moment where a coffin lid slides open and a hand appears is a nice creepy moment – though it would be even creepier if the hand hadn’t been entirely CG. The digital effects really are a mixed bag in this film – for everything that works you get something like a blurry, barely distinct topiary animal, and the trickery on Kyle MacLachlan’s face doesn’t look too good either. Surely normal makeup would have been better in this case? MacLachlan plays Isaac Izzard, the old pal of Jonathan’s who left this darn clock in his house before dying. Isaac is the person who’s been revived by Lewis, and he and his wife want to bring about a particular kind of Doomsday that I won’t go into, but which does lead us to the rather unnerving sight of the adult head of Jack Black attached to the body of a baby. Jonathan is determined to locate and destroy this seemingly magical clock before Isaac gets to it. You just know that there will be rather random uses of magic conjured up in the heat of the moment to create obstacles or to solve them, some revelations concerning characters [one did pleasantly surprise me], and lots of digital apparitions.
The living jack-o-lanterns who puke up what looks like jack-o-lantern sick with some maggots in are memorable, and I have to say that I was a little unsettled by a room full of automatons and manikins, a few of whom really do look creepy. There’s even a nice chill when we first visit the room, before they come to life. Atmosphere has never been something Roth has been particularly interested in except maybe for some parts of Hostel 2, but here he shows himself to be quite capable of conjuring it up when he really wants to. Not being able to spill blood and obviously aiming for more of a Robert Zemeckis or even a Steven Spielberg-type effort has brought out the best in him, though as I indicated before he’s not really a good enough filmmaker to make wild differences in tone work. But he does seem to believe in the material and even seems sincere with some Spielberg-type ‘family’ stuff – well, if you think about it Jonathan’s emotional arc in this film is very similar to Grant’s in Jurassic Park. Meanwhile little Owen Vaccaro seems a bit lost in places, while Nathan Barr’s very prevalent music all but riffs on Danny Elfman [well, it makes a change from bloody Zimmer] though like most modern scores is lacking in memorable themes.
Despite its unevenness, and not quite having enough to distinguish it from similar films, there’s still a fair bit to like in The House With A Clock In Its Walls. There are nice touches throughout, like background information shown as old movie reels, or its messages of embracing weirdness, and how it may actually be okay to be an outcast if you’re living your life the way you want to. Yes – some younger kids may be frightened – but they may also pick up on the fact that Jonathan never seems to be scared of anything, while Lewis is bullied at school and terrified at home but continually picks himself up and learns to overcome his fears – which is surely a positive thing for children to see. There are eleven more books in this series, and I wouldn’t object to seeing a few more filmed – even by Roth.