Eli Roth is one of those directors who I’ve never really been a fan of. His films have always been way too excessive and nasty, and not in a good way, and they haven’t been good experiences to watch. However, when I found out that Roth was going to direct this, a family friendly horror-fantasy film with Amblin producing, I was intrigued. I wanted to know what would happen if someone known for excessive gore couldn’t use it anymore, and I have to say that Roth without the excess, is a much more competent director, creating a fun horror-fantasy film.
The film follows Lewis Barnavelt, a recently orphaned 10 year old, who moves to the town of New Zebedee to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan. Whilst Lewis is struggling to get over the death of his parents, he finds out that Jonathan is a warlock an his neighbour Florence Zimmerman is a witch. After finding that out, Lewis asks to be taught magic, which Jonathan does, encouraging Lewis to find his own path to becoming a warlock rather than following the books he gives verbatim. However, Lewis soon finds out that the previous occupant of the house, Issac Izard, who turned to dark magic, hid a clock in the house before he died and when the clock strikes one some form of dark magic will cause an apocalyptic event. Now the plot of the film is fairly standard as far as these stories go, but I’m guessing it’s more because of the book the film is based on being written in 1973, so other such stories were inspired by the original book. What works about the film though is the focus on Lewis and him embracing his nature. At several points throughout the film, Lewis tries to hide who he really is and it’s only through embracing his real nature that he is able to fully become a warlock himself. There are also interesting ideas raised about the damage caused to people by grief and war and how people react to the horror they’ve seen, represented by Florence and Isaac. There are some elements, such as Isaac’s nature, relationship with his wife and plan, that I wanted to see explored in a bit more detail, but I still thought the plot was engaging.
The performances give the film a lot of fun as well. Owen Vaccaro as Lewis is a lot of fun, showing his enthusiasm for magic well, along with his intelligence, but doesn’t forget to show that Lewis is still a kid whose parents just died, the mistakes he makes in the film coming from that side of his life, and in these moments, and when he’s trying to fit in and not be himself, Vaccaro gives a really solid performance. Jack Black as Jonathan meanwhile is a lot of fun, having a good comic air to his character, showing that he is skilled in magic, albeit his skill is limited, along with his fear over what will happen if he can’t find the clock and his growing relationship with Lewis and learning to love Lewis and have a connection to his family he didn’t have before. Cate Blanchett as Florence is a lot of fun as well. A lot of the humour in the film comes from the interplay between Blanchett and Black, the quick wit of the two giving the film a lot of its charm. There’s also a tragic nature to her character, told through Blanchett’s facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, relating to her experiences during World War 2, which gives the character weight, and makes the relationship between her and Black work so well. Kyle MacLachlan as Izard gives a good, hammy performance, the kind you’d expect from a fantasy villain played by Kyle MacLachlan (even if he is underused), whilst Sunny Suljic gets some good moments to show the horrible, manipulative nature of his character. I also feel that Renee Elise Goldsberry and Colleen Camp were completely wasted here, not getting much to do, especially in the third act which really could have used them more.
On a technical level, the film is very impressive. Whilst the CG is spotty in places, the production design to create the house is excellent. There’s this lived in feeling to the house and you can feel the magic within that gives it a life of its own, making the house a character in the film itself (alongside objects in the house being given animal like qualities, such as a chair which behaves like a dog). There’s this sense of joy and wonder every time we’re in the house which puts you into Lewis’ perspective, giving the film a lot of charm. Eli Roth also knows when to allow the horror of a scene to build, but in this case, since he cannot use gore and excess, he has to focus on atmosphere, and this is easily the best horror work Roth has done, allowing the creepy atmosphere to build throughout the film. The production design also works well to create a 1950s aesthetic when outside the house, even getting little in jokes in there (such as the cinema playing Space Man From Pluto), which again adds to the atmosphere of the film.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with The House With a Clock in its Walls. I didn’t think that Eli Roth would be able to pull off a family film, but through a solid script, good performances and his worst excesses having to be curtailed, we got a solid family film. Sure the villain could have used more screen time, along with some of the female characters, but in terms of creating atmosphere and tone, the film works.
My Rating: 4/5