Monday, September 24, 2018

Movie Review: The House with a Clock In Its Walls

The House with a Clock in Its Walls *** / *****
Directed by: Eli Roth.
Written by: Eric Kripke based on the novel by John Bellairs.
Starring: Owen Vaccaro (Lewis Barnavelt), Cate Blanchett (Mrs. Zimmerman), Jack Black (Jonathan Barnavelt), Kyle MacLachlan (Isaac Izard), Colleen Camp (Mrs. Hanchett), Lorenza Izzo (Lewis' Mother), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Selena Izard), Sunny Suljic (Tarby Corrigan), Braxton Bjerken (Woody Mingo), Christian Calloway (Azazel).
I would not have guesses that the recipe for Eli Roth to finally make a good movie was to make a horror movie for kids. Roth has been consistently making movies since his debut Cabin Fever (2002) – and to be honest, I don’t think I’ve liked any of them (to be fair, I didn’t see The Green Inferno, so perhaps there is one I’d like). More often than not, when I read an interview with Roth after seeing one of his films, I want to see the film Roth thinks he made, rather than the film he actually did. This was certainly true of both Hostel films, that he said was about American torture of prisoners in the war on terror, but was really just a series of torture scenes, or his recent Death Wish remake that he said was aiming to start a conversation on guns, when it played like a NRA recruitment video. Roth has always had style, but his ideas have more often than not been confused. Perhaps The House with a Clock in Its Walls is his best film because essentially, the film has no ideas at all – it aims to be a fun little scary movie for families to enjoy – and its basically that. It was the first scary movie I’ve ever taken my seven-year-old to see – and it worked like a charm on her, sometimes making her laugh, sometimes making her watch the film through fingers covering her eyes, but never outright terrifying her. That’s the perfect amount of scares for a seven-year-old.
The film, like many a film aimed at children, starts with a child losing both of his parents. This is Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who parents die in an accident, and so he is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who he has never met before, in a new city, in a strange old house that everyone all the kids think is haunted – and while they’re not quite right, they aren’t quite wrong either. Jonatan is a warlock – a boy witch, the movie helpfully explains – and so strange things happen in the house. His neighbor and best friend is Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a powerful witch, whose spells have started not working quite right. Owen senses, not incorrectly, that they aren’t being wholly truthful with him about what they are doing at night. Meanwhile, at school, he’s trying to make friends – and choses the wrong kid to try with, which of course leads him to break the one rule Uncle Jonathan has in his house – about a lock cabinet.
For a seven-year-old who hasn’t seen a scary movie like this before, The House with a Clock in Its Walls works like gangbusters. It helps, a lot, that Jack Black goes full doofus in this role, in a way that I found distracting, but that kids will find adorably funny. He helps take the edge off of the scary stuff – which is mainly just creepy and spooky, then downright terrifying. Blanchett finds the right notes to be comforting, and funny – without going goofy like Black. The special effects and the art direction for everything at the house are quite good – Roth knows what movies he’s aping here, and he does a decent job.
Now, I’ve said the movie worked well for my seven-year-old, but how about for me – a horror fan who has seen countless horror movies. Well, it’s entertaining enough – it’s solid and fun, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. But I admit I had more fun watching my kid watch the film, then I did watching it myself. It’s still Eli Roth’s best film – that’s not saying much is it. If you have kids, and want to introduce them to scary movies, you can do worse. If you want a real scary movie, look elsewhere.  

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