The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

OCTOBER 11, 2018

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

When I saw Cabin Fever fifteen years ago I probably never would have guessed that its creator, Eli Roth, would in one year make a Bruce Willis action movie AND a PG kiddie horror flick starring Jack Black. But even if I somehow had, I certainly wouldn't have assumed that the Jack Black one would be superior. The House with a Clock in Its Walls could have been disastrous (like Death Wish was, though I pin far more blame on the casting of Bruce Willis than Eli's direction), but the "Splat Pack" guru seems pretty comfortable with this kind of fare - it's not the best of its type or anything, but it's imaginative and sweet where it needs to be, and he has a good grasp on how to make the scarier scenes work on adults without being too messed up for kids.

Based on the same-named book that I read in 4th grade and can no longer remember at all, the plot concerns a kid named Lewis who loses his parents (or just his mom? It's kind of unclear, he obviously has a dad but he only seems to miss his mom) and is sent to live with his eccentric uncle. Said uncle (Black) lives in a standard old creepy house where weird things happen, and before long Lewis starts to become privy to its secrets. His uncle (and his neighbor, played by Cate Blanchett) can perform magic, and they start to teach him some of the spells, which gets him out of his shell a bit. Naturally, he makes some mistakes and ends up awakening a long-dead bad guy, and they all have to work together to send him back to Hell (or whatever the YA version of Hell is). The book has a bunch of sequels about these characters, so maybe the plots get more complicated or at least interesting, but here the focus seems to be on introducing everyone and giving them a simple story that can yield a few fun setpieces.

And that's fine, because the characters are far more compelling than you'd find in the average "PG horror" movie. Blanchett's Mrs. Zimmerman in particular is incredibly memorable, thanks to both the character's tragic backstory (she lost her family in the Holocaust, a fact Roth commendably relays to the audience with subtlety) and Blanchett's charming performance. While Black has done this kind of thing a lot, she's not exactly the person you'd expect to find in a movie with farting topiary animals and pumpkins that puke seeds - but as you might expect from her long career of being terrific, she nails it. She's fully committed to the occasionally goofy material, but isn't going overboard like her co-stars, and more than once I wished the movie was more about her than Black or the kid.

Especially since the kid is... well, kind of annoying. Granted, he lost his parents and is having a tough time making friends, but he spends most of his time shrieking or crying, like Ron Weasley in the earlier Potter films, and turned up to 11 to boot. The script actually has a strong message about proudly marching to your own beat instead of doing things to impress people you want to like you (an attitude that yields him a would-be girlfriend in the film's closing scenes), but some of that impact is diluted, because I wouldn't want my kid to act like this one, either. Maybe Roth, being out of his element, didn't know how much/little he could reign in the kid's impulses as an actor, but the kid kind of bugged me in the Daddy's Home movies too, so I dunno. As for Black, he's just doing his thing, and you should know whether or not by now that's something you can enjoy or at least tolerate (I thought he was fine).

As for the creepy stuff, it works well, though there isn't a lot of it, surprisingly. While many kids' movies are content to race through dialogue and get to the FX stuff in fear of losing their audiences' interest, Roth (and the script by Supernatural's Eric Kripke) let the plot unfold, if anything, somewhat slowly. The film's villain is barely even hinted at until the second half of the movie, and he doesn't really show up in the flesh until its final 25 minutes, giving the movie a lot of time without much of a momentum. The majority of the things that probably caught your kid's eye in the trailer are all in the third act, so I guess it's good that they're probably more excited about Goosebumps 2 by now; I'm here, three weeks late, to tell you that maybe waiting for video will be better for this one if your kid gets restless easily, as there isn't much exciting stuff in the first hour outside of the odd background effect or quick bit (that purple snake thing behind the door that you saw in the trailer? That's pretty much that entire scene). Once the villain starts wreaking havoc they'll be riveted, just don't be surprised if they frequently skip ahead to the film's final act once they get the DVD.

And they won't care, but for us adults - the FX are good! There's a possessed chair that kind of acts like a pet, and it's so well done that I actually got kind of sad when it was attacked by the villain. The CGI pumpkins could have been a little better, but their puke seems practical for the most part, so it's a fair trade. The house itself is great, kind of a blend of Pee Wee's Playhouse (with all the various things in it just kind of "living" even if they're not the focus of a particular scene) and a standard "Kid moves into a new giant house and has adventures" kind of movie set. I mean, it's an Amblin production, from a guy who knows his shit - it'd be shocking if any of this stuff didn't work, because for the most part they could do these parts in their sleep. It's just the pacing of the script and the kid's performance that hold the movie back a little; it's probably best suited for an 8 or 9 year old who might start rolling their eyes at animated horror stuff for kids, but aren't quite ready for R rated fare. But from an adult, I just want to say kudos to Roth and Kripke for not talking down to the kids or giving them lowest-common-denominator garbage. Even if it can be a bit slow moving, it's never grating - that's ultimately more important.

What say you?

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