Time waits for no man, or house. Upon the death of his parents, young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro) is taken in by his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). Jonathan lives in a sprawling mansion with his old friend in Florence (Cate Blanchett). There’s something about this house. Inanimate objects move, and, there’s a frequent ticking sound emanating somewhere from within.
If all that were not weird enough, Lewis soon discovers that Jonathan and Florence are a warlock and a witch, respectively. Instead of being frightened, the loner and socially awkward youngster takes to the mystery and magic these two possess, and quickly becomes a talented spell-caster in his own right, which is important. Why? Because lurking out there is the spirit of dead magician Issac (Kyle McLaughlin). He’s looking to return to the living and recreate a new world in his image. It all starts with the clock; once time is up, Armageddon arrives. Only Lewis, Jonathan, and Florence have the potential to stop this.
Can an old dog learn new tricks? If Eli Roth’s recent filmography has anything to say, the answer is yes, or at least, he’s attempting to. The director’s most recent films of Death Wish and Knock Knock have seen him move further away from his gore-loving propensity. While those were different from what he’d done, they were still decidedly adult features, more or less making 90 degree turns from what he’d done. Pretty sure no one saw him moving in a complete 180 way to give direction to a PG fantasy romp in the solidly watchable The House With a Clock In Its Walls.
Certainly, there are specs of Harry Potter, Dark Shadows and the recent Goosebumps movie adaption. But, “THWACIIW” (boy is that unsightly) could easily be released in the late 80’s or early-mid 90’s. The Indian in the Cupboard, The Pagemaster, and even Labyrinth come to mind. The entire production will likely carry a warm feeling of nostalgia for an older crowd, and a feeling of wonder for the youngsters. And despite the kid-friendly rating, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say Roth delivers his purest horror movie here, serving up mildly effective scares per the landscape. If you’re feigning for a little old-school Eli, a projectile vomit sequence featuring floating pumpkinheads should suffice. Minus some shoddy CGI and the over-reliance of slapstick humor in places, it’s a sound effort from the oft-maligned filmmaker.
Adapted from the 1973 novel with the same name, there’s not much that The House With a Clock in Its Walls has to say thematically that hasn’t already been said before. It’s a well-intentioned, but cookie-cutter, story about accepting your eccentricities and being brave in the face of fear. Beyond the obvious doomsday reference, understanding the actual machinations of why a clock in the walls of a house is needed to carry out a character’s evil plans is hazy. At one hour and 45 minutes, there’s about 10-20 minutes of fat that makes for a longer movie than needed, and the attempts at pulling at the heartstrings are average at best.
Even with a prolonged runtime, THWACIIW keeps the gears churning with the combined work of Black and Blanchett. After a substantial break from cinema from 2011-2014, Black seems to be rounding back into comedic live-action form as evidenced by Goosebumps and Jumanji, right at home playing the zany man child with deep-seated problems of his own. However, it’s the Oscar winner in Blanchett who gives the funnyman a lot to play off of, and she appears to be enjoying her time reveling in delivering the driest of humor. This duo is fun. Everyone else? Can’t say the same, and that goes for Vacarro, who’s put in spots where he’s expected to deliver emotion, and the results are less than stellar.
The word indomitable comes up frequently in The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Using that word to describe the film would be an exaggeration, but Roth’s latest does feature an amusing, fun, and fairly determined spirit that’s worth something.
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