Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Eric Kripke (screenplay by), John Bellairs (based on the novel by)
Stars: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro
I’ve seen ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ described as a mildly diverting Halloween appetiser that serviceably channels early Harry Potter and whilst I’d wholeheartedly agree with that summary, I’d go one step further and add some early Tim Burton into the mix too. Eli Roth isn’t a man known for tackling the family, fantasy genre, he’s made his name doing horror, so it’s perhaps not a surprise then that some of that seeps it’s way into this film.
It’s got a reasonably simplistic plot, as you’d probably expect for a family friendly, flick. It follows Lewis Barnavelt (Lewis Vaccaro); a young man with an already troubled existence. He’s lost both his parents when we meet him for the first time and is off to live with his estranged uncle. Jonathon Barnavelt (Jack Black) is very quickly established as a strange, but ultimately amiable and warm figure, that welcomes the arrival of his nephew with open arms.
His house is a rickety, old, oddity of a place, full to the brim with all manner of clocks and other objects. When questioned by Lewis about the apparent OCD-esque collection, he brushes it off with a defensive, wit filled retort. It’s not until later that we fully grasp the real reason behind his collection, which harkened up memories of Sebastian the doll maker from Blade Runner. Roth makes the decision to slowly drip feed out details of Jonathan’s true identity, the story and the initially dead antogonist, which wasn’t a bad idea. Hierarchy, a rather more disturbing film from this year, followed a similar route in equally good fashion.
No, he handles the character development, introductions and plot very well. One such character that provides much of the exposition, along with Jonathon is Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), an on-off, romantic, unofficial wife figure. I enjoyed the relationship between those two and the bickering, the withering insults and the chemistry as a whole. But I digress, the perspective flip flops between Lewis’ trials and tribulations at his new school, being a fairly weird, shy figure that flits around the edges of social interactions, whilst back at home, he’s making discoveries about warlocks, magic and learning spells.
Incidentally, I enjoyed the clear distinction between the two environments. Whilst he’s ostracised in the main for his strange propensity for wearing goggles at school, though not by the popular kid, Tarby (Sunny Suljic), a weasel of a git that’s revealed to have ulterior motives; he’s actively encouraged to embrace this side of his personality by his uncle and unofficial aunt. Which to be honest was one of the primary themes I thought the film explored well. Lewis realises in the end that being yourself, embracing the inner quirkiness and surrounding yourself with like minded people is the way forward.
The antagonist of the film is an evil warlock and ex-best friend of Jonathon, called Isaac Izard (Kyle McLachlan), if you didn’t know. And why would you? He performed a blood magic spell a year prior to the events of the film, killed himself in the process and placed an elusive, doomsday clock behind the walls of the house to drive Jonathon mad. It’s for this reason that he has the myriad of different clocks in his house and it’s also for this reason that he frantically paces the house in the pitch black with an axe. Isaac proves to be an underwhelming, but still enjoyable figure for the short time he’s on the screen.
In actual fact, the sight of the dolls and clocks muttering away to themselves and one sentient stained glass window, creepily heralding his return along with the deaths of the current occupants was more disturbing than the man himself. I’m not surprised this film has left younger audience members a tad shaken, because the final act does turn a little dark in places, but I thought Roth got the balance right and always managed to lighten the tone with well worked humour at the right moments.
Jack Black is fantastic in this film. I watched it because of him and he brought his trademark blend of humour, whilst bringing his wacky, warlock character to life. His chemistry with Cate Blanchett was a highlight and speaking of the latter. She was excellent too, as the formidable witch with a hidden tragedy, who couldn’t perform magic anymore. You know what you’re getting with her, she’s one of the best actresses in the business.
Young Owen Vaccaro was arguably the standout however. He delivered a mature performance, belying his younger age, as a shy and misunderstood kid that had went through terrible personal upheaval and tragedy. He excelled in displaying the awkwardness of being the new kid in school, trying to claw his way into a friendship that was clearly non reciprocal. On the flip side though, he also had decent chemistry with Black and Blanchett, and there was some funny moments between them. From a character standpoint, Jonathan and Florence were the perfect remedy for his loss, ultimately springboarding him into the role of unlikely hero.
Can you discuss this film and not mention the amazing set and costume design? I don’t think you can. That had a huge part to play in the charming, lived in, magical tone this film exuded. The Nathan Barr score, which was fantastic, only added exponentially to that early Harry Potter feel.
I know this film is an adaptation of a novel which, surprise, surprise, I haven’t read, and as such, have no idea whether it’s a faithful interpretation or a butcher job. But for a less than two hour long film, I thought Roth did a decent job of world building and character development. It was a charming, magical little film with solid visuals and even the superfluous characters, like the chair dog and hedge cat were enjoyable. It packed some darker, creepy moments and had a solid, if unspectacular antagonist. The acting was was good across the board, but the leading trio and their chemistry ultimately made this film the enjoyable watch that it was.