The rare kids movie that commits to scaring its audience, yet does so in a way that won’t scar them for life.
When the name Eli Roth slithers onto the screen, moviegoers can usually expect a couple hours full of dismemberment, torture and other creative ways of torturing scantily-clad twentysomethings. But Roth, having taken on torture porn (Hostel and Hostel: Part Two), backwoods terror (Cabin Fever), problematic cannibal horror (The Green Inferno) and, most recently, revenge thriller (this year’s Death Wish remake), now moves onto perhaps the most difficult horror subgenre: the scary kids’ movie. Released under Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment banner, which has released countless kiddie classics including E.T. and The Goonies, Roth’s first foray into the genre, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is largely a success for the director, providing age-appropriate scares while weaving a suitably adventurous tale.
Based on the 1973 novel by John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in Its Walls follows Lewis Barnavel (Owen Vaccaro, neither looking nor acting much like the book’s Lewis), a young boy sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan following the death of his parents. Though it is immediately clear that there is something odd about Uncle Jonathan – playing a mysterious eccentric is right in Black’s wheelhouse – Lewis eventually discovers that his uncle is actually a warlock. Not only a warlock, but one obsessed with finding a potentially evil clock left in the walls of his mansion by the house’s previous occupants, the nefarious Isaac and Selena Izard (Kyle MacLachlan and Renée Elise Goldsberry). Lewis becomes an apprentice to his uncle, and they are soon joined in their mission by Uncle Jonathan’s friend/partner/neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), an even more powerful witch than Uncle Jonathan.
For kids, the appeal lies in the design of the titular house, which is filled with scary secrets made possible by excellent special effects and production design. The attention to detail recalls Tim Burton’s early work, as does the balance between scares and emotion. Once time starts to run out (excuse the pun), the fun increases significantly, and kids will be cheering in their seats throughout the film’s rollicking final third.
Blanchett, appropriately, is given the film’s best material, and witchy fighting skills and dry one-liners are the most appealing element of the film for grown-ups. Yet it isn’t as if Blanchett is slumming it here – she and Black have an easy, quirky chemistry that makes The House with a Clock in Its Walls nearly as entertaining for adults as it is for kids. It’s easy to see why the role would appeal to an actress as skilled as Blanchett, as she genuinely seems to be enjoying herself here. Black isn’t given the same level of material as Blanchett, but he imbues Jonathan with more warmth than many of other his onscreen man-child characters. The aforementioned chemistry between the two thespians will make many hope for a future, more adult-skewing collaboration.
While The House with a Clock in Its Walls will entertain onenand all, it’s a utilitarian film in the sense there is the constant feeling that nearly everything could have been done just a bit better in different hands. Though the production design is lovely and Roth’s direction is smooth and (age-appropriately) scary, the Amblin label invites fantasies of what the film would have been like in the hands of ‘80s-era Spielberg. There’s enough raw material here, including the much-loved book that inspired the film, but nothing (aside from Blanchett and Black) elevates it beyond the expected. This starts with Eric Kripke’s script, which erases some of Lewis’ quirks and flattens the Izard duo a bit.
Overall, though, The House with the Clock in Its Walls is a success. It’s the rare kids movie that commits to scaring its audience, yet does so in a way that won’t scar them for life. Kids and adults alike will enjoy the performances from the leads as well as decadent production design and the exciting final act. However, the film has enough going for it that it could have ended up even better.