Eli Roth’s family feature debut has a disappointingly clockwork constitution. The director is best known for gristly horror and certainly brings startling images to the 12A genre; just no sense of distinction. It’s a fun enough ride but with this plot, these characters and this house? It’s all a bit vanilla.
In The House With a Clock in Its Walls, Owen Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home 2) plays 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt, an essentially genre-generic orphan hero. He’s precocious, wears goggles and a bow-tie and travels with dictionaries – not that these are quirks that add up to much. When Lewis’ parents are killed in a tragic car crash, he’s sent to live with his chocolate cookie loving Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in an old, wood-panel mansion in Zebedee, Michigan. Next door is elegant, cookie making, neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), whilst within the house are secrets, living furniture and a giant, ticking clock.
As it transpires, there is more to Lewis’ new surrogate family than meets the eye. Performed with buffoonish puerility by Black, Uncle Jonathan is a warlock – ‘Just a parlour magician really’ – and Florence a superior witch, albeit one whose mojo has been knocked by the war. The film is set in a politically corrected 1955, with recent history only loosely relevant. On discovering that anyone can do magic, Lewis is keen to learn. When his struggle to make friends sees him try to impress jock classmate Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic) with a spell, however, he accidentally finds himself raising the evil former occupant of his new home – Kyle MacLachlan’s Isaac Izard – from the dead. It was Isaac, with witch-wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who implanted the clock in the walls, as part of a dastardly plot to bring about an early Judgement Day.
Roth’s assembly behind the lens have an adult-skewed film history. Supernatural creator Erik Kripke adapts the novel of John Bellairs, whilst among the producers are Shutter Island writer Laeta Kalogridis and Zodiac’s James Vanderbilt. To this end, the film is tonally tinged with the nostalgic air of eighties children’s adventure cinema over contemporary styling. Steven Spielberg’s Amblin are behind the production – introduced with a pleasing recall to their E.T. ident of yesteryear – and Nathan Barr’s score has more than a touch of the John Williams about it. As Lewis explores the house, there’s a scampish sense of wonder tangible in Barr’s floating string dances. It’s warmly familiar work, if unoriginal.
Bellairs’ 1973 book may pre-date the fantasy cinema of recent decades but is framed here as somewhat imitative of a long literary lineage. If the concept of a house with a clock in its walls on paper is vivid and romantic, on screen it is indistinguishable from the likes of Digory’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or that of Uncle Albert in Five Children and It. The film’s visual landscape is cluttered with ideas but its peculiarities have been done before – and better. The magic is more Matilda than Potter, whilst the lively interior is a Beauty and the Beast descendant. Such borrowing would work fine for younger, less discerning, audiences if it weren’t so flipping scary – way too much for tots. One gothic graveyard sequence in is chilling but it’s the vicious, floating pumpkins that traumatise.
If Roth’s horror – unsurprisingly – works well, his comic approach is more hit and miss. An over reliance on scatological humour has a cheapening effect, skewing too young again, while Kripke’s scripted gags often fall flat. Black and Blanchett do, at least, provide some laughs through Bette and Joan squabbling: ‘Be a dear, fetch a knife and stab me in the ears.’ It’s safe ground for Black and a step back from his sharper work in Jumanji last year. Blanchett, on the other hand, is a casting coup, arresting even when the plot fails to hang together. Why is Lewis so cool when visited at night be his dead mother? Why does the house suddenly turn nasty mid-way through?
As entry-level horror for young teens, The House With a Clock in Its Walls has value in its bag of tricks. What it lacks is the pizazz and wonder needed to stand the test of time.