The House With a Clock In Its Walls is a jumble of ideas, very few of which actually meet their fullest potential.
Synopsis: In the tradition of Amblin classics where fantastical events occur in the most unexpected places, Jack Black and two-time Academy Award® winner Cate Blanchett star in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, from Amblin Entertainment. The magical adventure tells the spine-tingling tale of 10-year-old Lewis who goes to live with his uncle in a creaky old house with a mysterious tick-tocking heart. But his new town’s sleepy façade jolts to life with a secret world of warlocks and witches when Lewis accidentally awakens the dead. (Universal Pictures)
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro
Writer: Eric Kripke
Director: Eli Roth
Rating: PG (Canada/United States)
Running Time: 105mins
The phrase “Eli Roth’s The House With a Clock In Its Walls” should come as a shock to anyone familiar with Roth’s prior work. It’s a little frightening that Roth was allowed to work on a children’s film. Known for his use of excessive gore, Roth is cornered into using other techniques to create a film kids will undoubtedly find terrifying. It’s definitely a good introduction into horror for kids, and that’s the best thing that can be said about the film. The not so good? The film often deviates from the main storyline to focus on side issues, none of which actually go anywhere, and feel like pointless detours. As a result, The House With a Clock In Its Walls feels very unfocused and unfinished – everything Roth begins to explore only goes 50% of the way. Despite the unfocused narrative, the film is one that kids will likely enjoy; it’s fun, fast-paced, thrilling and packed with good action.
The best thing about the film has to do with its atmosphere. It uses techniques borrowed from modern horror films, and implants them into a story surrounded by kid-friendly characters. Surprisingly, it still works. If anything, Roth should be commended for his success in toning down the gore, and adapting his techniques into a film that utilizes expertise, rather than gimmicks to create a scary film. The other great thing on the film is Blanchett as Florence Zimmerman. Much like her other performances, the film is infinitely better when she is on screen. The House With a Clock in Its Walls is no different, and she carries it. She’s funny, charming and the only character you actually root for, which leads to where the film is unsuccessful.
Jack Black and Owen Vaccaro are disappointingly dull. Black plays a classic “Jack Black” character named Jonathan Barnavelt, except completely unfunny. Perhaps the jokes will land in a theatre full of kids, but many of the jokes left the audience unamused. Jacob Tremblay has shown in the past few years that good child performances are perfectly doable if the casting is done right. Vaccaro doesn’t seem like the right choice here as Lewis Barnavelt; he’s awkward for a lot of it, but not in the way Roth intends. Perhaps that is more of a reflection on the direction than the actor himself.
The visuals are top-notch for the most part. There are points in the film where the CGI looked sketchy, but for the majority of the film, Roth shows that he’s got a keen eye for visuals. The effects and design of the house itself pull the audience into the atmosphere. Although the characters may not provide a reason to be engrossed in the film, the visuals sure do. The story, though predictable, is entertaining enough. It keeps the audience interested, but it’s the scares that keep the film fun throughout its entire 105 minute runtime.
The House With a Clock In Its Walls is a fine film. It won’t be remembered for its characters, or its acting, or even its story. The aspect of the film that will be commended and revisited over the years is Roth’s success in adapting genuine horror techniques into a kids film. He creates the right balance between not scary enough, and too scary. That’s a delicate balance that Roth doesn’t typically respect in his gore-filled filmography. This is the first time he’s really exercised restraint, and it’s a good look for him. The film will likely not sit well with parents (the jokes are directed to kids 10 and under), but kids will still have a good time. That is, if they’re not too terrified. Roth was an interesting choice to direct the film, but in the end, it does work. Unfortunately, due to a weak script and weak characters, The House With a Clock In It’s Walls doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have.
*The House with a Clock in its Walls opens in theatres on September 21st*