Since bursting onto the scene with his directorial debut Cabin Fever, Eli Roth’s output has always verged on the nihilistic. Sniggering behind his camera, he has brought the horror world remakes (Knock, Knock), kind of remakes (The Green Inferno) and killer hostels (Er, Hostel). He even directed the Nazi propaganda film that took centre stage in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. So, it perhaps comes as no surprise then that the enfant terrible of gore has turned his attentions to directing The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a Spielbergian fantasy romp about family for the family.
Yes, it’s true. Produced by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and based on the book of the same name, Roth appears to have done a complete 180, swapping his thumb biting at the mainstream for mainstream embracement. Albeit, with a just a little spice to scare the kiddies.
The film sees recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, Daddy’s Home) moving into the palatial home of his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Uncle Jonathan seems like the perfect guardian for a lonely boy. He’s loud, has no rules and will happily serve you cookies for any meal of the day. He’s also a warlock and is soon teaching Lewis his magical ways with the help of his neighbour and best friend Florence (Cate Blanchett). However, not everything is as it seems. Lewis is regularly woken by his uncle taking an axe to the walls and his mother (Lorenza Izzo, Knock, Knock) visits him in his dreams warning him not trust Jonathan. It’s not long before the little orphan is on the hunt for clues. All of which point to Jonathan’s friend, Isaac Izard, a deceased wizard played in flashback by Twin Peak’s Kyle MacLachlan.
Ostensibly a mystery film, with splashes of magic, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is as comforting as a warm hug. Showing a softer side at times, Roth appears to have eschewed his temptation to be as vicious as he possibly can be and in doing so manages to focus on and develop his characters. Oh, to be sure, bad things will happen to your hero, but least you’ll actually care if he survives. And what bad things they are! Roth appears to be having a hoot as he throws man-eating pumpkins, creepy mannequins, shapeshifters and zombies in the way of the only occasionally fearless Lewis. If this description has already got you reaching to cover your little one’s eyes, just think Goosebumps rather than Creepshow.
With all this phantasmagoria flying around, perhaps one of the most surprising elements is Black and the time he shares with Blanchett on screen. They bounce off each other brilliantly, verbally sparring whilst hiding their characters’ obvious affection for each other. And that’s not ‘kissy face’ affection, as Lewis helpfully points out. Meanwhile, MacLachlan seems born to cackle sinisterly over a cauldron.
It’s not all good news though. The House with a Clock in Its Walls can’t shake that it simply feels too lightweight, as if Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (Supernatural) were so keen to get to the end, they forgot to add a little more glue to keep everything bound together for the long haul. By the time the film is over you’ll be forgiven for thinking, “Is that it?”
However, for a film that uses a family gloss to cover a plot involving blood rituals and literal skeleton keys, the above is perhaps small potatoes to some. For those people, The House with a Clock in Its Walls will delight and enthral. And rightly so, as it feels like forever since we had a family film that dared to scare. It’s just a shame there isn’t that niggling feeling this could have been something more.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★☆☆
‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ is in Aussie cinemas from September 20 and US cinemas from September 21.