There has been a surprising amount of interest in this film since it was put into pre-production last yea. This is due to two reasons in particular. First, this adaptation of a famed children’s classic is directed by Eli Roth, the gore master and torture porn enthusiast behind films like Cabin Fever, the Hostel movies, and The Green Inferno. Coming off the release of the not-so-well-received remake of Death Wish earlier this year, Roth directing a children’s fantasy film seemed even stranger than it did when his attachment to the project was first announced. The second reason for the heightened intrigue is that none other than Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett signed on to the project not long after the announcement that Roth had, along with Jack Black who would be her co-star. The two-time Oscar winner was coming off the recent massive success of Thor: Ragnarok, in which she deliciously dove into the villain role of Hela, as well as being hard at work on a new, all-female Ocean’s film which came out earlier this summer. While most would expect working with Roth to be “slumming” for Blanchett, her involvement with the picture proved to be the contrary, spurring more interest in the production. Having been released this weekend, that interest, I feel, was warranted as the final product is undeniably charming. The movie does trip out of the gate with some notable missteps and clunky character development but gains its footing as it goes on, revealing some surprising thematic depth before rallying at the end for a spooky and exciting finale.
Based on the children’s fantasy novel of the same name by John Bellairs, the Amblin-backed Universal film follows ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (played by newcomer, Owen Vaccaro), who is sent to New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his estranged uncle Johnathan (a well-cast Jack Black) after his parents die in a car crash. It doesn’t take very long for Lewis to realize that his uncle possesses magical powers, but with a threat looming thanks to a mystical doomsday clock hidden within his uncle’s mansion, the Barnavelts must team up their neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman, a witch (played by Blanchett, the film’s acting MVP), to stop the end of the world.
Many have been quick to point out how Eli Roth has taken many cues from classic Spielberg films (unsurprising given that he is working for Spielberg’s company), however, may biggest comparison for the movie is found not with a single creative talent but rather a franchise, that being Disney Channel’s famed Halloweentown movies. Yes, The House with a Clock in its Walls borrows heavily from that realm of spooky, autumn atmosphere mixed with a goofy tone, and, to its credit, does quite a lot with it. Eli Roth’s film is quite handsomely detailed, especially in the titular house with its ornate staircases, lavish upholsteries, detailed wall paintings, and even a magically animate stained glass window that Roth gets a surprising amount of creative mileage out of. The set design taps heavily into the candy-colored Halloween spirit, but the locations themselves also add a bit of Norman Rockwell-type nostalgia to the picture. A single scene in which Lewis plays baseball with a friend at his new school does a lot to bring a sense of warmth to the story that carries through the whole film.
Acting wise, Blanchett really steals the show. She plays a witch with a tragic past which she hides behind a dignified and composed exterior. Despite the potential for her character’s sharp tongue and stiff upper lip to veer into coldness, Blanchett also gives Ms. Zimmerman a matronly quality that adds to her warmth and compassion for Lewis. She trades barbed insults with Jack Black’s Johnathan with ease, clearly having a lot of fun with this role, but you can always tell that there is a kindness and mutual respect behind the seemingly harsh teases. Blanchett is also quite funny in the role as she really embraces the supernatural kookiness of the house and its happenings. Black also does quite a nice job here, and while he is not the acting titan that Blanchett is and his performance can be a little bit broad at times, he still very well cast as the “crazy” uncle figure that we all know and love. He embraces Johnathan Barnavelt’s many quirks with a complete lack of vanity, and to Black’s immense credit, he is able to sell some more emotional moments with his nephew quite effectively, once again adding that goofy but charming warmth to the picture. He and Blanchett make for a fun and witty (if only ‘platonic’) duo. The rest of the cast does a pretty nice job overall. Vaccaro’s performance starts out a bit broad, and he didn’t seem completely adept to handle some of the more emotional scenes at first, but he really grows into his character as the movie moves along and has some good chemistry with Black and Blanchett. One of his scenes toward the end could have easily veered off into “cringe-worthy” territory, but with his innate sweetness, Vaccaro actually makes the scene quite touching. Outside the main trio, Kyle MacLachlan manages to be just as creepy as Black is warm, in a good way (he is also quite well cast), and Lorenza Izzo does a very good job navigating some steep tonal shifts in her scenes. Sunny Suljic plays the other main children role in the film and I have to give him credit for doing a lot to flesh out his character’s B-storyline alongside Lewis.
So where exactly does the movie falter? Well, it is in the script (penned by Eric Kripke), which is notably a bit lopsided. While the script certainly follows a three-act structure, it doesn’t do the best job utilizing said structure. Whereas a screenwriter is supposed to lay the groundwork for certain narrative pay-offs and revelations the first act, thus allowing the audience to arrive at those conclusions with the characters, Kripke withholds much of the information regarding certain character’s backstories until the end of the second act, or even the third act at times, resulting in some of the surprises and twists of the film loosing most of their impact as the reveals are quickly passed over in favor of hurrying the story along. While not the case with every twist, many are diluted by having the reveal of said twist and then having a character explain the twist with new information that we as the audience had no access to what so ever. This uneven plot construction can also be seen in the film’s world building, which suffers as a result and doesn’t allow for much of a mythology or set of rules governing how magic works to be built over the course of the film. Unwarranted (but inevitable) comparisons will be drawn between House with a Clock and the Harry Potter films, but it doesn’t help this film that those movies always felt as though they had a fully thought out mythology, even if much of that mythos ended up getting lost in translation from the page to the screen (the same cannot be said of this film). The most egregious result of this lopsided writing, however, is that the relationships between many of the character’s get short-changed. Without a mythology, or even an air of mystery to Johnathan’s true nature, we’re not given time to truly understand how Lewis feels about his uncle upon first meeting him. Thus, his reaction to discovering Johnathan’s ability to perform magic feels hollow and they don’t truly start to seem like family until the middle of the movie. It is a pacing problem that, despite Black, Blanchett, and Vaccaro being able to keep the audience entertained and engaged with fun and laughs through their magical antics, sticks out quite noticeably and, many times, takes one out of the film.
It is not all bad though, as Kripke is able to sow some story seeds quite well, which effectively add a surprising level of sophistication to the story. Mrs. Zimmerman’s backstory involves personal tragedies that resulted from WWII which tie in poetically the motivations of the film’s antagonist, and there is a very touching message woven throughout the movie about embracing your “weirdness” as it is what makes you who you are. This theme is also aided by a surprisingly nuanced sub-plot involving Sunny Suljic’s character, which shows how some people (even children) can take advantage of others by exploiting insecurities, how some people aren’t worth trying to impress, and how your real friends, and the people who will love you the most, don’t mind your oddities. This thematic depth helps to offset the unevenness of the writing overall, but the real engine driving the story is very much director Eli Roth, who is clearly having a lot of fun with much of the magical hijinks that happen to the Barnavelt clan and Ms. Zimmerman, relishing in the goofiness, the macabre, the occult-like aspects, but also the sheer beauty and imaginativeness of it all (one scene in particular, involving a solar system, is a real standout; you’ll know it when you see it). This all comes to a head in the final act, which despite rushing toward the end of the film at a breakneck pace, is a wildly fun ride. Here we see Roth a little more in his element, the action and atmosphere taking on a darker and more sinister tone than the rest of the film. It is not gory or gruesome, but still genuinely freighting at several points. While some may laugh at the thought of evil puppets, man-eating pumpkins, and undead warlocks, to see them realized through the eyes of Eli Roth actually adds a surprising edge and bite to the proceedings that intensifies the finale and amps up the excitement (to their credit, Black, Blanchett, and Vaccaro also do a great job selling their fearful reactions throughout). One particular moment sees Lewis attacked by flying books that leave paper cuts all across his hands, and the way the scene is shot and cut together, so that we see Lewis’ hands get lacerated from uncomfortably up-close, elicits a surprisingly visceral reaction for a kid’s movie, and shows exactly what Roth brings to the table as a filmmaker. It is not horrific, but it is this slightly more mature imagery that is a breath of fresh air amongst many family films nowadays that treat children as much younger than they actually are.
So while the film does suffer from some undeniable narrative issues, there is certainly a lot to love. The film has Halloween and autumn-colored atmosphere in spades, a game cast of colorful and kooky characters, a lovely message about embracing your weirdness, and solid balance of goofiness and surprising edge to make up for the uneven writing. It is genuinely a treat to see Eli Roth evolve as a director. As something of a Hollywood oddball himself, given his fascination with gore and the macabre, it is nice to see him make a movie that celebrates oddballs for their uniqueness.
Verdict: 2 ½ Stars (out of 4)
While the writing does bring the movie down a bit (and suggest that it might have been better as a potential Netflix series, a la A Series of Unfortunate Events), it is still fun, entertaining, and delightful thanks to a game cast and the excitement of watching an established director try something new. The House with a Clock in its Walls is a great primer for Halloween, and could potentially become a seasonal children’s classic in league with the Halloweentown movies. While it probably will make for a better rental or streamer than a theater-going experience, it is worth seeing in theaters if you’re inclined (especially for a family night out!).