There was a moment during The House With A Clock In Its Walls when I turned to a fellow critic and rhetorically asked “What the f*** is this movie?!” It happened during a bizarre sequence where Jack Black’s kooky warlock Baranavelt is struck with a magical spell of sorts and proceeds to age drastically in reverse, leaving us to witness Black’s fully-sized head atop a naked baby body complete with free-sprouting urination. It was imagery I could’ve done without witnessing – and at least now audiences who decide to check out this uneven film will be prepared – but it ultimately ended up being the most memorable moment of a movie that fails to match the talent involved.
As if director Eli Roth hoped borrowing concepts from the likes of the Harry Potter films, Lemony Snicket, and Goosebumps would suffice, as opposed to creating something mildly original instead, House… at once fails as a scary tale for the young audience he’s clearly aiming for and as an enjoyable romp for the adults who will go along rather begrudgingly. Roth has proven he’s a capable genre director on more adult-driven fare like Hostel and Cabin Fever, and it’s not like the Eric Kripke-written script he’s working with is void of potential (there’s a neat sequence involving jack-o-lanterns coming to life), it appears more that in removing his staple use of overt blood and gore (seriously, Hostel and its sequel are vile) so too his ability to muster up tension in the most basic of use.
In place of jump scares is comedic trite as the film focuses on young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a typically precocious 4th grader who is sent to live with his uncle (the aforementioned Black) following the death of his parents; seemingly under the impression that audiences will be against exposition, the film gives us next to nothing in a back-story regarding Lewis’s parents, so the moments where Lewis converses with the ghost of his deceased mother (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s former wife) lose any sense of emotional urgency. Not long after moving in to Barnavelt’s evidently magically-inclined mansion, Lewis discovers his uncle is a warlock, that silver-haired, purple-clad houseguest Miss Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a witch with a tragic past, and there’s a particular clock hidden away in the walls that is linked to a demonic Kyle MacLachlan. The film goes out of its way to conjure up an awfully convoluted backstory regarding MacLachlan’s evil Azazel but the basic gist is that if time runs out, so too the universe.
Whilst the familiarity the film has with many a contemporary title (even the Bette Midler cult comedy Hocus Pocus feels like an inspiration during a graveyard-set piece) may do little to inspire genre-savvy viewers, young audiences could find something of value – assuming they’re on board with a film that doesn’t produce a lick of originality. As a family-friendly feature, House… is harmless and could prove a viable option at the cinemas, if only because there’s so little on offer for families in the current season. Black and Blanchett are clearly dedicated to the material (Black may be a little more muted than usual though) and the effects are enjoyable in that slight-whimsical manner, but coming from a director who at least owned a particular style when helming his gruesome stories, as well as being reportedly told by one Mr. Steven Spielberg (whose Ablin Entertainment is behind this film) to make his kids movie scary, this should’ve been far more of a treat instead of the day-old snack we’ve been served.
About The House With A Clock In Its Walls
A film for the whole family, this magical adventure tells the tale of 10-year-old Lewis, an orphan who is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan in a creaky old house. But his new home is far from ordinary and soon reveals a secret world of warlocks and witches. The house is enchanted, and Lewis must join his uncle on a quest to discover the source of a mysterious ticking within its walls.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls (PG) is screening in Australian theatres from September 20th 2018.