UNIVERSAL PICTURES (2018)
Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Kyle MacLachlan
Eli Roth directing a kid’s movie? Cool.
In 1973, John Bellairs wrote a supernatural and creepy children’s novel with a long title – The House with a Clock in Its Walls – and forty-five years it’s been adapted for the big screen. Attaching Eli Roth to the project actually makes a great deal of sense given the source material and its tone, however, Universal Pictures had other ideas on what direction to take the movie in.
The movie is set in 1955 and follows orphaned ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccaro) as he is sent to live with his kooky uncle Jonathan (Black) in his strange and magical mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan. It just happens that Jonathan is a warlock and his next-door neighbour, Florence (Blanchett), is a sharp-talking witch. The previous tenants of Jonathan’s macabre abode were the nefarious Isaac (MacLachlan) and Selena Izzard (Goldsberry) and in order to wreak future apocalyptic chaos, they hid a powerful and magic clock somewhere within the walls. When Lewis’ clumsy attempt to impress new friend Tarby (Suljic) with magic go awry on Halloween, the trouble soon begins for Lewis, the town and the world.
The novel was a slightly dark, pretty creepy and mainly effective piece of children’s ‘horror’ – or at least eerie mystery – so Roth would seem like a decent fit for the movie – even if his previous efforts would traumatise the target audience for The House with a Clock in Its Walls. However, what we get in the movie adaptation is a Goosebumps-esque CGI assault of magic, colour and ghoulies. There’s a strange tone throughout as the atmosphere darts from attempts at humour, adventure and jump scares and not particularly successfully either.
In a curious pairing, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett have good chemistry together as the argumentative friends who find themselves protecting the young boy in Jonathan’s care. Black is back with his animated, jaunty façade and Blanchett is a staunch bundle of snark and class. Sadly, Owen Vaccaro is weak leading the movie, though alongside seasoned campaigners Black and Blanchett, many could look a few steps behind. He’ll do well down the line but, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be here.
Some of the nasties on display may be too intense or frightening for much younger viewers as Roth gets to have at least some fun with the scares and tension building (in terms of framing and technique, rather than actual stakes), however, the villain of the piece is pure naff and is introduced far too late in the movie to have any kind of impact. Roth could have torn away at least ten minutes in the editing room to tighten things up and potentially balance out the uneven pacing and maybe even make things that bit more interesting. There’s a whiff of the first few Harry Potter movies, though this lacks their charm and affability. It's all a bit too mundane to be as magical as it aspires to be.
For all of its potential, The House with a Clock in Its Walls seems like a major missed opportunity. With twelve books to mine for stories, the first attempt falls short with an uninteresting story, a tornado of tones and, sadly, a weak lead. It’s all just a bit limp.
September 21st 2018