Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Rating

Director

Eli Roth

Screenplay

Eric Kripke (Novel: John Bellairs)

Length

1h 44m

Starring

Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerken, Vanessa Anne Williams

MPAA Rating

PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language

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Review

As with most fairy tales, children’s stories have often traded on scary or frightening situations to terrify and enthuse young audiences. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is definitely no exception.

Horror maestro Eli Roth takes the reins of this adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 kids novel about a young orphan who moves into his uncle’s home where a clock hidden within the walls of the house ticks down the time towards a potentially catastrophic event. Jack Black plays the uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt, a mediocre warlock who wants to protect his nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), but doesn’t quite know how to be an effective parent. Cate Blanchett plays their next door neighbor, Florence Zimmerman, whose own abilities have dwindled in the wake of a tragedy she doesn’t want to speak about.

What Roth did with Hostel was solid genre filmmaking, but here he seems out of his depths, trying to infuse a frightening tale with sufficient comedy to keep the audience entertained. He excels in those moments where his creepy aesthetic bolsters the story, but lets jokes fall flat when they should punch the audience right in the funny bone. Some of the humor is crass, but harmless. At other times, it’s just crass.

Black’s performance feels strangely out of place in the film. His boisterous energy fits the comic elements well, but the character is emotionally stilted as if Black doesn’t quite know how to convey the complexities of it to the audience. Meanwhile Blanchett is given far too little to do for her talents. Her gravitas would seem like a natural fit to a film that at times tries to take itself seriously, but her emotional beats are mishandled and her performance doesn’t burst beyond the narrative.

Kyle MacLachlan does well as the former owner of the house whose motives form the basis for the film and whose horological construct is a constant presence in the film. As his wife, Renée Elise Goldsberry overplays her role upon her late arrival in the film.

The true discovery here is Vaccaro, a young actor who enlivens the narrative at its most dull and uninspired moments. While a lot of his performance is derived from reaction shots to the gross and horrific things going on around him, those reactions are solid. When he’s actively performing, the audience can’t help but be magnetized by his presence. On the other side of the coin is Sunny Suljic as schoolmate Tarby who acts as a catalyst for the film’s 2nd act turn. Apart from looking uncannily like an incredibly young Corey Feldman, Suljic delivers a stilted, unimpressive performance that feels controlled and not by his own abilities.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a film that was targeted at children, but which features some scenes that are questionably appropriate for them. Meanwhile, the adults who must attend with their children will be frustrated at times because there often isn’t enough to engage them. It’s a film with good intentions that struggles to avoid a few thematic traps and unhealthy bits of sexism.

Review Written

September 24, 2018

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