Release: 28th January 2019
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
Jack Black, two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett and Kyle MacLachlan star in The House with a Clock in its Walls. Based on the beloved children’s classic written by John Bellairs, this magical adventure tells the story of 10-year-old Lewis, who goes to live with his uncle in a creepy old house. But this town’s sleepy façade jolts to life when Lewis discovers that the house has a mysterious tick-tocking sound coming from its walls. Determined to find the ticking, Lewis uncovers a secret world of warlocks and witches and accidentally awakens the dead – forcing Lewis, his Uncle Jonathan and their neighbour, Mrs Zimmerman into a race against time to save the world.
How do you give a child nightmares? Eli Roth has some ideas. Through impish intent or sheer dumb luck, The House With A Clock In Its Walls (henceforth called ‘Walls’), is probably the scariest film Roth has made since Cabin Fever. There is death, despair, creepy-ass dolls, and Jack Black’s ever nimble eyebrows. Your offspring will enter this film a child and emerge damaged goods. All of which, is of course to say that Walls is great fun.
Amblin and the works of Steven Spielberg were cited as a major touchstone here, but one might argue that Roth has his headspace more in the coming-of-age thrillers of Stephen King. From the bubblegum nostalgia of 50’s Americana to the gothic subterranean labyrinth beneath uncle Jonathan’s abode, Walls is more Pennywise the Clown than E.T or The Goonies. Roth does his best to bring levity, with the eccentric Jonathan and spirited neighbor Florence keeping us laughing, while Nathan Barr’s score tells us that we are in a safe and adventurous place. There is even a living bush in the shape of a lion, that craps leaves. Initially, one might think of works such as A Series of Unfortunate Events or another Jack Black star vehicle; Goosebumps. So, from this, you can sense the type of product on offer.
Stylistically the film is sound. Yes, it is overly familiar in places; with animated furniture reminiscent of Robin Williams’ Flubber and Pee Wee’s Playhouse; but it’s this fluffy familiarity that helps child viewers orientate themselves amongst the overarching sense of dread running throughout. You gotta give the poor buggers some respite from all the horror. Rather, it is the script that moves in fits and starts. This is no central plot to speak of. Jonathan is on a different arc to protagonist Lewis. The mystery of Isaac Izzard presents itself as and when necessary, while Lewis’ growing sense of interest in magic in supplemented by an unnecessary side plot about schoolyard anxieties. All the while, uncle Jonathan stalks the halls of the house, tapping of walls and swinging axes. This eventually ties itself into a cohesive finale that spirals and results in an image of a baby so haunting and outrageous your child will either laugh for days or never sleep again.
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett function nicely as buffers to propel Owen Vaccaro throughout the film, but their chemistry never quite feels rock solid. A love/hate relationship of gentle joshing never rings true, and on more than one occasion Blanchett feels utterly wasted, while Black gets to be his most Jack Blackish. When Kyle MacLachlan’s Izzard eventually pops up, he seems to have rocked up fresh from the mind of David Lynch. “Dark” is barely a suitable adjective for what has to be one of the most visual upsetting villains in a children’s movie since the Dementors first sucked at Harry Potter’s face.
So, while Walls is a lasting trauma waiting to happen, it is a lot of fun and is destined to make less sensitive children feel a rollercoaster of emotions. It has it faults, and might be far from a classic, but the biggest shock is that Eli Roth has finally made a decent film!
Film Grade: C
We will not list them all here, but suffice to say that Walls has a tremendous set of supplements. They fluctuate between informative and token, but for kids this is great gateway material in to the filmmaking process. The Director’s Commentary is classic Jack Black. So fans of his will want to give that a listen.
Special Features Grade: B
Maybe a little too creepy for its own good.