At first glance, Eli Roth may be considered an odd choice to direct the adaptation of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, from the book by John Bellairs (with illustrations by Edward Gorey – hell yeah!). Roth, after all, is most famous for the the gory and violent Hostel and Cabin Fever series. For feature completion, we also have the Italian jungle cannibal throwback Green Inferno and the remakes of Knock Knock and Death Wish. None of these are particularly good, although I enjoy the majority of his films on an entertainment level; I note here I’ve not seen his take on Death Wish, or any of the original series. Much of that enjoyment comes from how obvious it is Roth loves the horror genre. This is likely why Spielberg himself reached out to Roth to direct the Amblin produced A House with A Clock in its Walls. Apparently he told Roth he wanted to scare the hell out of the kids. While I wouldn’t describe the movie as scary, it sure reached in and grabbed my horror-loving heart. It’s not perfect, but Roth made a damned good film.
Roth imbues this adaptation, it was adapted once before for a Vincent Price hosted anthology show (note to self: seek this out), with a love of the family-friendly horror of the past. Yes, it’s based on Bellairs book; but I haven’t read it, so my memories went to Bradbury and the feels of his October Country. Set in 1955, the story finds young and recently orphaned Lewis Barnevelt moving to a small town in Michigan to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan. Jonathan (Jack Black) is a warlock, living in a deceased warlocks house, a house full of magical and sentient objects, along with that pesky clock in the walls counting down to…. Something. Next door is a witch played in purple by Cate Blanchett. This house is awesome. Production design – hell yeah! Sure, most of it is made by CGI, but it’s good CG – mostly. Some shots don’t seem done but for the majority, seamless. I want to go to there. I want to live there. I want to explore it. So long as I can burn the room with the dozen automatons, please.
Getting a director like Roth on board, and being told to scare the kids, was a great choice for the film. I don’t know how much comes from the book, or its eleven sequels, but I was glad with the places it went to. Too many people think kids can’t handle horror and certain levels of it. House went into darker territory than expected. Necromancy and blood majick places. In not holding back, it also doesn’t hold the audience’s hand. There is no talking down the expected audience, thus making the film just as entertaining for adults to watch without children (like my wife and me).
Lewis is as precocious as many of his lead-kid brethren, but not annoyingly so. He love his dictionary and learning new words. He’s well played by Owen Vaccaro from Daddy’s Home; although most of what he has to do react to everything. The times where it moves to him to carry emotional weight there is something lost – especially as his fake crying is pretty awful. But when you’re competing for attention from Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, and Kyle McLaughlin, it’s hard not to get lost. Black and Blanchett are wonderful, with more chemistry than most romantic comedy partners. In a refreshing change from most movies, they are a platonic couple – just friends who love to jab at each other. Blanchett delivers every line with relish and has a surprisingly emotional backstory as well. Black is more Jables than he was in the more restrained R L Stine in the surprisingly good Goosebumps from a few years ago (here’s to the sequel next week). On the not so good side is almost-friend/bully Sunny Suljic. Kid was bland and bored here; he’s the leading Mid90s; here’s to him being better there. Ultimately, his part could and should have been cut. Biggest issue with the film is the school subplot is distracting and useless; a quick rewrite would have gone around this. While I’m talking negative – dammit fart/pee jokes. You don’t’ fit here and took me out of the film.
A House with a Clock in its Walls is a real treat for horror loving families. With strong chemistry in its leads, a Bradbury/Spielberg feel, and allowed to go where it needs for the story, the film is a lovely throwback that should appeal to any horror person who will allow themselves to be a young person looking at the genre.