Film Review – The House with a Clock in Its Walls
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
The title of The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018) could also work as its central premise. It definitely features a house, a house that most certainly has a clock in its walls. You can’t get more straightforward than that. Written by Erick Kripke (adapting the novel by John Bellairs) and directed by Eli Roth – yes, the same Eli Roth of Cabin Fever (2002) and Hostel (2005) fame – this comedic fantasy has a lot of things going for it: good set design and costume work, an intriguing mystery that has some tangible stakes, strong performances by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, and an aura of danger that we don’t normally see in modern family adventures. But it also showcases some pretty immature humor that even adolescents wouldn’t find funny.
For much of the run time I was pretty engaged with the narrative. Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is a young, bookish kid who recently lost his parents. He’s an outsider at school, thought of as weird or strange. Lewis moves in with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) and his friend Florence (Blanchett) in a house that looks more like a museum for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Almost immediately, Lewis suspects things are not as they seem in his new home. There are clocks everywhere, there are loads of old memorabilia and bric-a-bracs, and all the odd furniture and portraits seem to change from one day to the next. Soon enough, Lewis discovers that his uncle is an actual wizard and Florence a witch, with the house being a living, breathing creature.
The true accomplishment of the film is in the costume design and art direction. The house is made to look like an elaborately decorated haunted house you would see during Halloween. The wallpaper and tapestries are bathed in dark colors, the library is filled with books that look like they are a century old, and if you make a wrong turn or open a certain door, you may find yourself in a secret passageway or hidden room. It’s a lovely set to look at, and I only wish Roth had spent a little more time letting the camera soak in all of the visual details.
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett surprisingly work well together as an odd couple. Early exposition explains that their relationship is not based on romance, but more on mutual understanding and empathy. Oh, they may crack jokes at each other’s expense, but they are there for each other through thick and thin. With her purple outfits and silver hair, Blanchett’s Florence looks like a proper taskmaster. But behind her outer shell lies tragedy and heartbreak, leading to her reluctance in practicing witchcraft. As Jonathan, Black’s costume and make up calls to mind a latter day Orson Welles – which isn’t much of a stretch given that Welles himself had an interest in magic. Jonathan looks like a showman who hasn’t come to the reality that his best days may be behind him; he moves and acts as though he has another trick waiting up his sleeve.
The “clock” element involves Jonathan’s former partner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), the former owner of the house – also a wizard – who died under, shall we say, “dubious” circumstances. Before his death, Isaac used his magic to hide a special clock somewhere within the walls of the house. Ever since they moved in, both Jonathan and Florence – who can hear the clock ticking – have been on a constant search for it to no avail. Isaac, the clock, the house, and the relationship between Lewis, Jonathan, and Florence all come to a head when dark magic comes into play, putting everyone’s lives at risk. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
The plot moves as a nice pace, juggling between Lewis’ life at school and at home with efficient balance. We get an understanding of how his discovery of his family’s special gifts and his wish to feel accepted by other kids might cause him to make unwise decisions. The banter between Jonathan and Florence make for some of the bigger laughs, and I appreciated how the production didn’t shy away from making the threats feels perilous. Youngsters (maybe 8 or younger) might find some of the sequences a little too intense.
There are two glaring issues going on here. The first is the lead character. This has more to do with Roth’s direction as opposed to Owen Vaccaro’s acting. Roth does not pull a great performance out of Vaccaro. Lewis is the lynchpin for the entire story, and yet every word he says and every gesture he makes feels forced and over the top. The more pressing problem is Roth’s insistence for juvenile humor. I highly doubt Bellairs’ book contained a running poop joke that was not funny the first time we come across it let alone the third or fourth time. Nor do I suspect that he contained a scene where a character gets morphed into a creature that is beyond grotesque (I’ll save the details for your own sake, dear reader). And if the book did have these bits, then Roth was not wise enough to cut them out. It’s as though he can’t help himself – for all the good we get, he has to add a touch of excrement just for his own personal amusement.
But even with those flaws, The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018) was a pretty enjoyable ride from start to finish. I’m not going to say it’ll be a classic or even have the kind of cult following that something like Hocus Pocus (1993) has, but I think anyone who gives this a shot could be pleasantly surprised.