The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the story of an orphaned boy accidentally finding himself immersed in a world of supernatural hocus pocus. Haven’t we seen all this before?
Following the death of his parents, dictionary-loving Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is taken in by his mysterious Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and goes to live at his spooky, clock-filled mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan. There he meets Jonathan’s best friend and neighbour, the sparky, purple-clad Mrs Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Uncle Jonathan is jovial, Mrs Z, spikily good-humoured, and there are all the chocolate cookies a boy can eat, so why does Lewis feel there is something decidedly odd about the house?
Lewis struggles with his grief and fitting in at a new school, not helped by the fact his uncle’s home is known locally as ‘The Slaughterhouse’. Before you can say Muggle, he discovers Uncle Jonathan is a warlock, Mrs Z’s a witch and the house is chock-full of magic, courtesy of its previous warlock owner – and Uncle Jonathan’s former magical accomplice – Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan).
Reluctantly, Uncle Jonathan agrees to teach Lewis magic, with one provision – Lewis must never open the cabinet in his uncle’s study. But Jonathan and Mrs Z don’t tell him the whole truth – Izard was a dark warlock who hid a clock in the house walls and it’s counting down to something catastrophic. As his powers develop, Lewis is goaded into showing off for a school frenemy – he makes a crucial error of judgement and mayhem is unleashed.
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are a fun pairing, swapping snappy banter while always having each other’s backs, but ‘nothing kissy-faced’, as Mrs Z assures Lewis. Indeed, Blanchett twinkles throughout and seems more at home here than in previous family films like Thor Ragnarok or Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.
As might be expected, there are magical special effects a-go-go including a beautiful conjouring of the galaxy in the garden at night, an abundance of poo jokes featuring an animated topiary lion (‘Kitty’) and an army of slime-vomiting pumpkins that will no doubt delight the youngsters.
For Halloween family fare, it’s all very slick which is fine until you consider this is the work of gore-fest, horror-meister, Eli Roth (Death Wish, Cabin Fever, Inglorious Basterds and the Hostel series) – the directorial equivalent of hiring Hannibal Lecter as a babysitter. In accompanying interviews, he talks about moving on from the horror genre, ‘growing up’ and children’s films being ‘the new shocking’.
It’s not unheard of for directors whose work has traditionally been dark in tone to shift toward more mainstream (and less financially precarious) projects – Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro (currently reworking the Pinocchio story) are good examples. But what does Roth bring to the equation?
The House with a Clock is an Amblin (Steven Spielberg) production and its glossiness reminds me of Chris Columbus’ (Home Alone) take on the first two Harry Potter films – children’s stories given the Hollywood veneer. But the HP film series only really came into its own with The Prisoner of Azkaban when Alfonso Cuarón took over the reins, giving the series a whimsical but darker aesthetic that set the tone for the later films. Who didn’t shudder at the first sight of a Dementor’s bony hand grasping the railway carriage door and the rattling suck of its breath? And when Burton crossed over into mainstream family entertainment with Charlie & the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, he brought his distinctive dark-fairytale canvas with him.
While there are spooky themes at work in The House with a Clock – 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. There’s no sense of Roth bringing his own visual stamp to the material in the way Burton, Cuarón or del Toro have done.
What makes this even more baffling is the fact that the book the film is based on, John Bellairs’ 1973 children’s novel of the same name, was illustrated by none other than Edward Gorey of The Gashlycrumb Tinies fame (‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…’). The House with a Clock comes with its magical world already visualised by a master of horror for children yet sadly there’s little of Gorey’s dark imaginings in this cinematic incarnation.
Spielberg apparently told Roth, “Make it scary. Kids want to be scared”. And the story is rich with the stuff of childhood terror – the death of parents, not being accepted at school, the betrayal of a friend. Kids will no doubt love the spectacle and the potty humour and Jack Black’s energy carries it over the line but, in the end, The House with a Clock in Its Walls feels too polished to really deliver on goose bumps.