Synopsis – A young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt aids his magical uncle in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world.
My Take – Long before British author J.K. Rowling became a household name with her phenomenal Harry Potter series, young readers would elect the works of author John Bellairs, who specialized in writing Gothic mystery novels for children and young adults with a particular interest in good witches and benevolent warlocks, as their ideal study. However, the real catch here is not about why or how it took 45 years for his Lewis Barnavelt series to get up to the big screen, but more about how Amblin Entertainment elected director Eli Roth to helm this film.
Other than playing Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz in Quentin Tarantino‘s 2009 war film, Inglourious Basterds, director Roth is mainly known for his behind the camera work on R-rated gore films like Cabin Fever, Hostel, Hostel: Part II, The Green Inferno along with Knock Knock and a Death Wish remake (which released early this year). An odd choice for a family film, right? Even from its first trailer the film, penned by Supernatural (the long running The CW show) creator Eric Kripke, seemed like just another studio effort to replicate a sliver of the success of Harry Potter franchise, with its blend of the magical and the macabre.
While the film is as whimsical and silly as it looked, it does nevertheless manage to work out well for itself in the end, mainly due to its perfect balance between its set creepy tone and injected humor, all in order to mainly appeal to the younger audience. Yes, the film isn’t probably among the best of its genre, but it does manage to provide a nice little slice of escapism, one that delivers old-fashioned entertainment for its run time of 105 minutes. It’s not part of a franchise, nor does it seem to have any real aspirations for a sequel. It’s nostalgic for a different era of film-making, but it doesn’t rely on that nostalgia to a debilitating extent. It’s just popcorn fluff that wants to transport you to its magical world for a good time.
Set in the 1950s, the story follows Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a 10-year-old boy, who following the death of his mother (Lorenza Izzo) and his father in an accident is send to live with his estranged uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), in New Zebedee, Michigan. What he didn’t expect to find is that his uncle lives in a house filled with clocks of every shape and size, along with being a practicing warlock. With good maternal support from Jonathan’s best friend and neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a former witch, Lewis fitfully adjusts to his new life, interacting with a purple boa constrictor called William Snakespeare, a topiary griffin suffering from incontinence and a living armchair that behaves like a terrier.
However, the orphan remains very lonely, and continues to have trouble making friends at school, and in his effort to fit in and impress the popular kid in school, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), Lewis break his uncle’s only rule, opening a cabinet which contains a mysterious book and using it’s spells, all the while without his knowledge, Jonathan and Florence continue their search in the mansion for a magical clock left behind by its previous owner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his equally malevolent wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry), that is ticking in the walls toward something terrible.
Thankfully, the story is not too complex for young minds to comprehend. With the presence of both a retro Universal logo and the iconic Amblin symbol before the credits, it’s easy to understand why the film is practically destined to be seen as some kind of Spielbergian throwback film. Plus, it has many of the necessary elements for the classic Spielberg story, from the tortured young protagonist to the presence of a hero’s journey into the spectacular land of the unknown. Here, director Eli Roth seems to have seized the chance to embrace the PG world because it meant working with Amblin, the company responsible for Spielberg‘s classic, E.T., along with Gremlins, Back to the Future, the recent Ready Player One and many more. Bringing the first novel in a 12-strong series to the screen, the director’s latest initiate’s kids into the idea that a home can be more than a cozy space, particularly in strange and sometimes sinister ways.
Of course, nightmarish fun house films for younger viewers are hardly new, even if they are for Roth – and, with aims to start a family-oriented franchise always evident, the film that follows smacks of easy, simplistic formula. But the film is filled with darker tones than its PG rating might suggest. While there are spooky themes at work in the film like witchcraft, hexes and the occult, creepy paraphernalia, dead animals and a room full of clockwork mannequins that frankly would not be out of place in any of Roth’s previous films, the overall polish of the film means none of it feels overtly threatening. The jokes are also corny enough for a kid’s film and MacLachlan’s campy performance is center stage, and depending on your tolerance for the bloodshot eyes of the recently resurrected, not really all that frightening.
Blood and guts are mostly out, but a patch of evil pumpkins vomiting neon orange goo is allowed. And for every brightly colored simulacrum, there’s something darker and realer lurking in the shadows, like the throwaway glimpse of a number tattooed on Mrs. Zimmerman’s wrist. But then there is a flashback of young Isaac fleeing through the German woods and stumbling upon Azazel, the Prince of Hell, who cuts Isaac’s palm and laps up his blood with a wickedly long tongue. The spooky house they live in has its secrets too. To begin with, it has a will of its own. The furniture and artifacts in the house also have distinctive characteristics and persona. They can all move and communicate, albeit in strange ways. Now, if only Beauty and the Beast were never made, this would have been such a novel idea indeed.
Anyhow, the moving, writing and future-predicting photos on the walls, a winged-lion topiary, weird house pets are some of the original additions of the filmmaker, Eli Roth. Beyond the film’s channeling of a variety of nostalgic styles, perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is its exploration of grief and trauma, which serves as a potentially unconscious dissection of a trope that we’ve seen more and more in recent art house horror films like The Babadook and Hereditary.
Every character of major importance in the film has experienced something terrible, either on a personal or global scale. Lewis lost his parents at a very young age, and he’s still a long way from getting over that tragedy. Florence lost her husband and daughter in a way that has shaken her completely. Isaac witnessed the horrors of World War II. Jonathan had a falling out with his family, and then he lost his best friend to the dark side of magic. With that in mind, the film becomes a film about how we process loss, and how that pain can take us down both positive and negative roads. Even if it’s sort of a cliché to deal with an orphan protagonist in this kind of story, however director Roth and writer Kripke add a level of poignancy to Lewis’ heroic tale, as his growth as a warlock is measured against a tangible choice between two paths.
I’m admittedly unfamiliar with the source material by John Bellairs, so I can’t say if this is a new addition or a feature of the book, but I was genuinely impressed by the film’s emotional depth. The film seems to have been designed as a kid’s guide to horror films, introducing the audience to genre tropes in innocuous ways. You can’t have a lot of body horror in a kid’s film, but you can have a topiary griffin who continuously evacuates dead leaves across the backyard in a beautiful, disgusting arc.
Yet despite its impressive strength in the thematic department, I should emphasize that the film, almost by design, a relatively disposable film. The story plays out much like you’d expect and director Roth struggles with pacing from time to time, often moving the story along in fits and starts without really settling into a consistent groove. Still, there’s a sense of mischievous fun in play here, with a hearty serving of chills and chuckles to overwhelm any shortcomings that may hinder the film’s quest for nostalgic perfection and the performances have a really big hand in that.
It’s an unexpected mix of performers that works well. Cate Blanchett is impeccable as the kind, sophisticated Zimmerman and Jack Black is an adorable goofball as Jonathan. Owen Vaccaro too matches up to Blanchette and Black‘s energy. Vaccaro’s take on Lewis Barnevelt is charming and will connect well with younger audiences. While Kyle MacLachlan, Lorenza Izzo and Renee Elise Goldsberry ham it up spectacularly, while Sunny Suljic manages to leave a mark. On the whole, ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’ is an enjoyable family-friendly fantasy which despite its occasional stumbles manages to be pleasant and surprisingly charming.
Directed – Eli Roth
Rated – PG
Run Time – 105 minutes