Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Eli Roth
Stars: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Renee Elise Goldsberry.
Lewis Barnavelt (played with charm by Owen Vaccaro, from the comedy Daddy’s Home and its sequel, etc) is a ten-year old orphan who is sent to live with his eccentric, kimono wearing uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, from Goosebumps, etc) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Uncle Jonathan lives in a creepy old haunted house with cobwebs, creaking doors, furniture that comes to life, and a magnificent stained- glass window that cheeps changing images according to the mood of the moment. And house is besieged by a constant and annoying ticking sound. Somewhere in the walls of the house lies a Doomsday clock, the legacy of the house’s previous owner, an evil warlord named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, from Twin Peaks, etc). Due to an accident, Izard was killed before he completed the clock though.
Owen learns that Uncle Jonathan is some sort of warlock as well, although not a very good one. And he learns that the house itself contains some dark secrets. However, his neighbour Mrs Zimmerman (Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, from Blue Jasmine, etc) is fortunately a very good one. She is almost a constant visitor to the house as she joins Jonathan in his search to locate the clock.
At school Lewis is a bit of a misfit and a loner. He makes an attempt to befriend Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic, from The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, etc), the most popular kid in school, and his efforts to impress him with his knowledge of magic and witchcraft leads him to accidentally awaken Izard from his grave. Izard returns to his former home intent on finishing his sinister mission to bring about the end of the world.
Based on the acclaimed 1973 YA novel written by Jack Bellairs (one in series of twelve) and illustrated by Edward Gorey, this is a coming of age tale that incorporates elements of magical fantasy horror, and the supernatural. The script has been written by Eric Kripke, who is better known for his work on tv series like Supernatural, etc. The film has been produced under the auspices of Spielberg’s Amblin Company and it references many of the themes familiar to their back catalogue of early films and 1980s child friendly dramas, from the classic ET through to The Goonies and Gremlins.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls has been somewhat surprisingly, directed by Eli Roth, better known for his nasty and violent torture porn films like Hostel, etc, but here he shows remarkable restraint and unleashes his childhood fantasies with this ghoulish fantasy. Roth’s love of old horror and fantasy films shines through. This is a more family friendly offering, although it does go to some dark places and there are some scenes and themes that may be a bit too intense for younger audiences. Those scenes dealing with Owen’s difficulties at school are cliched and amongst the least interesting in the film.
There is some great production design from Jon Hutman (The Mummy, etc) to create the impressive interior of Jonathan’s sprawling house that is crowded with strange artefacts and objects. There is also some impressive CGI special effects work that brings to life a raft of strange creatures, including some demonically possessed pumpkins and eerie and menacing dolls.
Blanchett normally plays more serious dramatic roles, but she seems to be having fun here with her magical powers, also she wields a very powerful umbrella that comes in handy during the very busy climactic showdown. She also develops a great dynamic with the zany Black as their odd couple characters trade delicious barbs. For his part, Black reins in some of his usual over the top and annoying mannerisms. There is something about this enjoyable enough special-effects driven fantasy that makes The House With A Clock In Its Walls a suitable companion piece to his previous Goosebumps. Young Vaccaro is also very good as the curious Owen and he more than holds his own against his two veteran co-stars.