The House with a Clock in Its Walls Review
Hostel's director meets Harry Potter
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett embrace the wacky and weird in this charming but odd children’s fantasy.As I’m sure you’ve noticed, ever since the end of the Harry Potter series there’s been a bit of a gap in the teen boy-wizard market. Naturally, the director who’s stepped in to fill the void is none other than Eli Roth – you know, of Hostel and Death Wish fame.
The ensuing captivatingly-titled The House With a Clock in its Walls is an adaptation of the 1973 John Bellairs novel, which featured spooky illustrations by Edward Gorey and held on tightly to a sense of gothic, creepy and yet charming darkness that appealed to scores of youngsters.
This film valiantly attempts to do the same, and will no doubt prove delightfully scary for certain young audiences; there’s a nice mix of charm, comedy and some minor thrills, though a lack of explanation, a few too many plot holes and an ironic misuse of timekeeping mean some of the spooky spirit of the original novel is lost in translation.
A nice mix of charm, comedy and some minor thrills, though a too many plot holes and an ironic misuse of timekeeping mean some of the spooky spirit of the original novel is lost in translation.
The scene is set in 1955 New Zebedee, Michigan. Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is dispatched to live with his slightly weird uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) after the tragic demise of his parents. Jonathan lives in a huge, irrationally dark Victorian-era mansion filled with objects that move on their own and filled with a constant, booming ticking sound.
Jonathan also just happens to be a warlock, though all the self-propelled stained glass and anthropomorphic armchairs in the world won’t help Lewis achieve his main goal – to make friends at school. Eventually he forms a tentative and potentially problematic alliance with a ‘greaser’ (Sonny Suljic), and there’s always Jonathan’s best friend and next-door neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).
The casting of both Black and Blanchett is perfect, an instance of real life magic; this is a surprising but note-perfect pairing. In fact, any scene with Blanchett is a highlight, and Zimmerman’s fantastic wardrobe is the perfect foil for the actress’ endless charm. Black, too, is his usual eccentric, effervescent self, and once again proves the perfect man for the job of ‘slightly-weird-and-unexplainable-adult-in-kids’-films’.
The beauty of the original book was the potency of the underlying themes of grief, sadness and the importance of darkness, and this film is so jam-packed with visual effects and keen to shoehorn in one-liners that any semblance of emotional depth or character development is cast aside.
What we do have is spectacular set design, with enchanted and possessed objects ready to burst from the screen in almost every scene. Production designer John Hutman and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers have gone above and beyond, with a rich colour palette, unbelievable mise en scène, striking attention to detail and plenty to look at… almost too much.
An easy chemistry between Black and Blanchett really carries the film, though strong turns from Kyle MacLachlan and Renée Elise Goldsberry renew the film’s energy when it begins to flag in the second half.
The casting of both Black and Blanchett is perfect, an instance of real life magic; this is a surprising but note-perfect pairing.
Unfortunately, the script doesn’t really give any of the performers too much to work with. There are a few witty exchanges scattered throughout (almost exclusively given to Black and Blanchett), but much of the dialogue is dedicated to spoken exposition to move the plot along.
Ironically for a film in which a clock plays such a huge role, the pacing seems very rushed, and we don’t get much time to actually enjoy the weird and wonderful things that share the house with Jonathan and Lewis. The final act of the film – the inevitable showdown when chaos breaks out – really allows Roth to shine; it’s quite intense for a kids’ film, with resurrection and projectile-vomiting gourds, but it really brings the film to a climax, and shows Roth’s surprising aptitude for creating child-friendly thrills.
In all, a weak script and odd pacing do detract from a beautiful story and the rich world of the film; there’s so much potential with the magic and top-billed stars, that it almost seems that a sequel might actually be a good idea (shock, horror).
For kids (though not particularly jumpy ones or those who scare easily), this will be an enjoyable introduction to all things spooky. For adults, the effects are at least pretty enjoyable, and the performances are entertaining enough to keep you going. If you’re excited for Halloween, this will be right up your street; if you’re not, see this anyway – the scene in which Cate Blanchett headbutts a pumpkin is worth the price of admission alone.
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