The House with a Clock in its Walls | Eli Roth | September 21, 2018
When you think Eli Roth, you don’t think of family-friendly horror films. You think of films like Cabin Fever, the Hostel films, The Green Inferno, Death Wish … gore-fests, to be frank (maybe with the exception of Death Wish, which was more unnecessary crime-spolitation remake than gore-fest).
But with The House with a Clock in its Walls, we get our first – and maybe only? – look at what a family-friendly Roth film is like, thanks in part to a script from Supernatural creator and original showrunner Eric Kripke (adapted from the John Bellairs book of the same name and with a few nods to Supernatural sprinkled in). Fans of Bellairs’ works (this novel, others in the Barnavelt series, and other works of his), proceed with caution.
The House with a Clock in its Walls opens with Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro from the Daddy’s Home movies), a recently orphaned pre-teen sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in the sleepy circa mid-1950s fictional town of New Zedebee, Michigan. Louis quickly grows accustomed to life in Jonathan’s gothic-looking house at 100 High Street, as he’s introduced to witchy neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchet pulling double duty this year, first with Ocean’s 8) and the magical things afoot in the house. (The banter and platonic name-calling between Black and Blanchet is worth the price of admission – 2D over IMAX, mind you, as the film is just converted to fit the screen.) However, in an attempt to gain a friend in the popular, athletic, bullying, and running-for-student-body-president Tarby Corrigan (Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s Sunny Suljic), Louis accidentally raises former house owner and evil warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan playing Crypt-Keeper for half his on-screen time) from the dead using a forbidden necromancy tome, speeding up the end of the world by way of a ticking magical clock Izard left in the walls of the house – hence the title.
On the surface, The House with a Clock in its Walls is a harmless Amblin-style throwback. 5-time Eli Roth composer Nathan Barr utilizes a restored Fox Wurlitzer organ for the score, which helps, but doesn’t particularly stand out. It doesn’t do much new for the juvenile supernatural/horror genre which has winnowed to the Goosebumps films as of late. Speaking of, given Black’s character of Jonathan and the CGI-enhanced pumpkins, purple snake, automatons, and doomsday effects in the 3rd act, you’d think that this film was the sequel to Goosebumps rather than a spiritual predecessor. (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, the sequel, is out on October 12th and is missing Jack Black. I wonder why …)
Digging deeper, there’s a little more character depth than in the original story. All the core characters are dealing with loss and trauma of one kind or another. Lewis struggles with the loss of his parents through his bookish nature and an emotional support Magic 8 ball; Jonathan’s the black sheep of his family; Florence’s magic was broken by the loss of her husband and daughter – heavier subject matter that’s merely alluded; and Isaac, horrified by seeing the atrocities of war first-hand, wants to reset the world. While these elements help add depth, they’re not explored or developed to their fullest potential. It is a lighter family-friendly film that clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes, and you’ve got to have time for the brief moments of scatalogical humor, after all – including a topiary griffin’s leafy “poops”, pumpkin “vomit”, and a rather disturbing and unnecessary bit of urination during the film’s climax.
Compared to the Bellairs book, there’s some respect for the source material and the time period – outside of the scatalogical humor, that is. The film’s title is presented in a familiar Bellairs/Gorey style, and the artwork returns for the end credits. The era is bumped up a few years to provide a breathing gap between the end of World War II and the events of the film, which is neither here nor there. The events of the book are spread out over the course of a few months, while they feel a little more compressed in the film – gotta keep the watching kiddies and the runtime in mind. The world building is slightly more fleshed out but doesn’t extend too far past the house at 100 High Street – with (maybe) the exception of a scene in an ice cream parlor & malt shop that feels like a slight throwback to a scene from A Christmas Story. That being said, given the era, there are unspoken racial and gender undertones. Nearly everyone in the cast (and in the town) is white, with the exceptions of Selena Izard (Renée Elise Goldsberry), fellow student Rose Rita Pottinger (Vanessa Anne Williams), and a few classmates (that I can recall). This overall isn’t a big deal, but given that Selena is a slightly underdeveloped villain in the novel while Selena in the film is relegated to underdeveloped villainous sidekick and assisting wife, it’s a waste of a perfectly good Goldsberry.
Otherwise, I was amused (mostly in hindsight) by some Eli Roth touches. Keep your eyes peeled for a Hitchcockian Roth cameo, for one. Apart from that, his now ex-wife Lorena Izzo (featured in a few recent Roth films – including the aforementioned Green Inferno) appears as Lewis’ dead mother, and Colleen Camp (also a featured cast member in several Roth films, as well as Yvette in the 1985 cult classic Clue) appears as the nosy neighbor Mrs. Hanchett.
While The House with a Clock in its Walls doesn’t reinvent the juvenile horror genre, it sticks fairly close to the plot and tone of the original story – with some modern (and unnecessary) humor additions. It’s got a little camp, doesn’t rely on jump scares (thankfully), and follows a now-familiar overcoming-evil plot. The unique magic touches, however, just come from within.