If there is one thing that I would never associate director Eli Roth with, it is films made for children! With pictures like Cabin Fever, The Green Inferno, Knock Knock and the Hostel series to his name, Roth is an esteemed member of the so called ‘Splat Pack’, a collection of filmmakers who have excelled in producing explicit, graphic, gory horror since 2002. Imagine my surprise, then, to see the king of gore attached to a PG project. one starring the current king of family comedy Jack Black, no less!
Based on a 1973 novel by John Bellairs, The House With A Clock In Its Walls tells the story of Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a recently orphaned ten year old boy in the 1950s who is sent to Michigan to live with his eccentric and mysterious uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Very quickly, Lewis recognises that all is not as it seems in his uncle’s sprawling, peculiar house, coming to learn that Jonathan is a warlock, and his charismatic neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a witch. The narrative proceeds as a grand supernatural adventure, with resurrected villains, bewitched objects, magic filled battles and all importantly, a hidden clock that if left undiscovered could spell the end of the world.
For the most part, The House With A Clock In Its Walls is a really fun and visually stimulating romp. As with all films that rely on a CGI fest to execute their spectacular climax, things get a little messy as the outlandish story starts to wrap up, but there is enough enjoyable content and character work done in the quieter first two thirds to forgive the usual over zaniness at the end of a kids’ ghost story adventure. As you might expect from an Eli Roth picture, the film is genuinely scary and creepy, in the PG-13 sense of course. Something that a lot of filmmakers seem to forget these days is that children like to be scared in a controlled and safe environment. There is only so much sanitised fun that a ten year old can take, even if their parents would prefer them to watch Minions again and again. There doesn’t seem to be an issue with Disney and Pixar continuing to emotionally devastate their viewers with each new release, so why shouldn’t kids get a few good jump scares every now and then to mix things up?
There are some genuinely dark themes within the story, from murder to necromancy to references of certain character experiences of the Second World War and the Holocaust. That might sound like a lot to take, but these themes are interspersed with a much broader amount of levity and magical fun brought to you mainly by the safe pair of hands that is Jack Black. There’s an equal amount of chuckles and smiles to counterbalance the hands over eyes moments, and like any true family romp, there is a strong and touching sense of unity and ‘finding one’s tribe’ that brings things together nicely in the end.
From a story and theming standpoint, the film is fairly run of the mill for its genre, but there is no doubt that it is elevated by some particularly star studded central performances. As alluded to above, Jack Black brings a lot of his signature family favourite flare to the screen. He’s sufficiently kooky and charismatic, and despite all of the comic high jinks, he’s also great at evoking that caring and protective side that is essential for a guardian role in a film like this. Since as far back as School Of Rock, Black has been doing for family cinema in the 21st century what Robin Williams did for it in the 1990s, and I don’t make that kind of comparison lightly.
As the witchy Florence Zimmerman, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a ball. She knows how to be silly, but more importantly she knows when to dial things up, with her character’s back story being the one lightly but poignantly linked to the Holocaust. You enjoy her campy banter with Black just as much as you are moved by her more sombre and meaningful moments when talking about her past. It’s a much more stellar performance than a film of this stature is usually treated to.
As the young Lewis, Owen Vaccaro is as sweet and lovingly nerdy as you would hope him to be. The quality of child actors has really risen across the board in the last decade, with filmmakers thankfully taking acting talent in to account as well as fitting looks and cuteness. Luckily for the audience, Vaccaro has both, he reminds me almost of a young Dylan Minnette, hopefully he will go on to have an equally promising career in his young adult years. As a trio, the three actors create an enjoyable makeshift family dynamic, and most pleasingly, Vaccaro doesn’t disappear under the shadows of his high profile screen partners.
Overall, I don’t that The House With A Clock In Its Walls is going to be one of those family films that becomes a cross generational favourite for decades to come, but there is definitely a lot to be enjoyed in the moment. It deserves praise for not being scared to, well, scare its target demographic. If I could survive the childhood terrors of The Nightmare Before Christmas, then today’s kids can definitely survive this! The CGI nature of the big finale is perhaps a little more generic than I would like, but the interesting and fun content leading up to it is certainly enough to make the experience worthwhile.