‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ review: Spooky gateway horror film for children

Eli Roth’s ‘The House With a Clock in Its Walls’ comes a little late in the game, but it’s a perfect double feature with Jack Black’s other dark fantasy film, ‘Goosebumps.’

The words ‘family-friendly’ and ‘Eli Roth’ feels jarring to be seen together. You see, filmmaker Roth is one of the propagators of the term “torture porn” in cinema – as seen in his gore-centric films like Hostel and Cabin Fever. (I haven’t seen any of his films, as a matter of fact, I stayed away from it). So to see him direct a John Bellairs children classic makes me stroke my chin in contemplation.

Much to my relief, he kept The House with a Clock in Its Walls on a PG level – in exchange of spilling blood and guts, he used pumpkin goos. There are some jump scares peppered throughout, but they’re still cartoonish enough not to be traumatic. Visually, his horror sensibilities translate well into a gateway, mild-horror film for children. This is a film with dire consequences but Roth engages on a light flow to be age-appropriate.

There’s an attempt to world-building here. The eponymous Victorian-themed house is adorned with several ticking clocks and animate objects – there’s a reclining chair that behaves like a dog, a topiary griffin that poops dried leaves and plenty of creepy automatons that come into life. New to the setting is a geeky orphan Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who’s sent to live in this house owned by his estranged uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black). Lewis soon gets to be an apprentice for Jonathan who happens to be a warlock and his neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) who’s a witch. Together, the trio go search for a hidden clock that’s been hexed by an evil warlock (Kyle MacLachlan), somewhere in the house. It’s counting down to something sinister.

Jack Black is a warlock and Cate Blanchett is a witch in “The House With A Clock in Its Walls.”

Roth tries to adopt a Burton-esque tone and the film boasts a grandiose production design but surprisingly, the house lacks depth and personality into it. It’s quite ironic for a film that’s about magic. If you’re accustomed to Spielberg’s children films or Harry Potter, you can immediately feel what The House lacks. The magic is not introduced with much fanfare – there’s little sense of wonder considering that we are seeing it through the eyes of a boy who has never been exposed to real magic before.

With a familiar plot served, you can almost list down every film or franchise that comes through your head while watching it. Yet, you can’t accuse the film as purely derivative since this story is first published in 1973. Chances are, it’s one of the inspirations for the 20th century literature. As a movie, however, this adaptation of The House has nothing new offer. At best, it pays homage to a long cinematic history of dark fantasy films. Most of the time, its a bland adaptation that comes a little too late in the game.

Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) is a warlock searching for the location of nefarious ticking sound in his home in “The House With A Clock in Its Walls.”

The main pull here has to be the dynamic chemistry of Black and Blanchett. Black is an oddball who plays a saxophone and occasionally wears a kimono while Blanchett dons a Mary Poppins inspired outfit with a magical umbrella to zap some monsters. While both are stuck in playing quirky caricatures, they are able to bring a genuine layer to a story that’s otherwise been laden by expositions for backstories. The warm familiar face of Black is enough assurance for kids that this mild horror flick won’t get too dark and bloody for their tastes. His signature quips are there and overtime the actor masters subtlety in his performance. On the other hand, Blanchett looks luminous and regal.

Child lead star Vaccaro makes a strong impression with his impassioned outbursts and shrieks. What the film lacks for the wide-eyed wonder, it compensates with the heart. The kid wins you over with his fascination for fancy vocabulary and magic 8-balls alone. He’s an accessible model of individuality and self-acceptance for kids.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls doesn’t have a sweet spot to appeal to an entire generation – the kids will be enthralled, but the adults may find this drab and unmemorable. Still, this film is a tame pre-Halloween treat for kids that will give them the emotional maturity how to handle scary situations, without leaving them nightmares. As for Roth, it’s nice to see him take a stab in the lighter side of horror and I for one, prefer him to stay on that lane.

3 out of 5 stars

Directed by Eli Roth from a screenplay written by Eric Kripke. Based on the novel ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ by John Bellairs.
Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Vanessa Anne Williams.
Run time: 105 minutes

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