THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS (2018, PG, 105 minutes, UNIVERSAL PICTURES/AMBLIN ENTERTAINMENT)
I have never been a huge fan of Eli Roth; it seemed that most of his films were light on story, heavy on gore and torture, and the need to push the limits of the rating’s board.
So, when I heard he was directing a kid’s movie, I was a bit skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? This is the same guy that did HOSTEL, CABIN FEVER, and The Bloodiest Bruce Willis Movie Ever Made. How in the wide world of sports was this guy going to pull off a PG-rated movie? Turns out, spectacularly.
Working from the script by veteran television writer Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”, and the forthcoming “The Boys”), and based on the classic children’s series written by John Bellairs, Mr. Roth pulls off the seemingly impossible. While the finished product is not wholly perfect, it is perfect in enough places to make it a thoroughly entertaining experience.
HOUSE stars young Owen Vaccaro (DADDY’S HOME) as Lewis Barnavelt, a recently orphaned boy who moves into his uncle’s house. Uncle Jonathon (Jack Black, who tones down his Jack Blackness enough for you to enjoy his performance) lives in what, at first glance, appears to be a haunted house. Stained glass windows rearrange themselves, chairs follow you around, and the griffin topiary likes to poo in the bird bath. Yet things are not what they would seem: Uncle Jonathon is a warlock, and his feisty neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett, giving me several more reasons to adore her) is a witch. The house once belonged to an evil warlock who built a nefarious clock within its walls (duh—the title…), one which has remained hidden since his death the previous year. Jonathon spends much of the nighttime hours searching for it, as he is certain it is up to absolutely nothing good.
There are several elements on display which work surprisingly well, not the least of which is Lewis’s plight. He finds himself in a new home, in a new school where he struggles to make new friends, and trying to grieve for his dead parents. Young Mr. Vaccaro plays his role quite well; he is sorrowful, yet still displays the curiosity inherent in any child. He plays off his adult co-stars well, but it is the back-and-forth insults between his uncle and Florence that are some of the biggest highlights. Black and Blanchett seem made for each other, so far as trading quips goes. It is their chemistry as his bickering surrogate family that gives the story its hidden heart, that which guides Lewis through this tumultuous time. And makes for some pretty good laughs. Also on hand is Kyle MacLachlan as the evil warlock Isaac Izard, who doesn’t grind his teeth on the scenery so much as he gleefully gnaws on it.
This may seem like a movie just for kids, but the humor here is smart, sometimes biting, and the typical trappings of a tale about an orphaned kid are not present enough to bog down the story. We see that Lewis is sad, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be the entire focus here; he’s a kid, and even when dealing with loss, there is still a certain feeling of wonder and beauty in childhood. The script captures it, but, more importantly, Owen interprets it beautifully through his portrayal. There are also some moments that could be a bit scary for kids, but not so much that they’ll be having nightmares over it.
There is a certain magic to this story, and to Mr. Roth’s way of telling it. From the opening credits (he uses the old Universal Pictures logo to start things off) to the way he never once condescends to his target audience, here he seems a master storyteller. He isn’t setting you up for the next gore-drenched scene, but rather guiding you along with a friendly nod and the gentlest of nudges. With any luck, Mr. Roth has at last found his niche, and based on the latest box office returns, he should be given the opportunity to direct a sequel.
-- T. S. Kummelman