Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The House With a Clock In Its Walls ★★★☆☆

So Eli Roth directed a family movie. Yes, that’s Eli ‘I directed Hostel’ Roth. Who would have expected that? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d actually been quite excited for this film to be released ever since I saw the first trailer; it struck me (pun genuinely unintended) as a steampunk-tinged Goosebumps-style romp, so I was on board right from the start.

The House with a Clock In Its Walls, based on a book of the same name released in the seventies, follows the story of  Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), an orphaned child who moves in with his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black) into his immense gothic mansion. It’s not long before Lewis realises something is amiss and discovers that Jonathan, along with his neighbour Florence (Cate Blanchett), are both magic users and that there is a clock built into the house’s walls that are steadily ticking down to something. It turns out that the house’s previous owners - a powerful yet sinister warlock and his wife (Kyle MacLachlan and Renee Elise Goldsberry, respectively) installed the clock for some nefarious purpose, so it’s up to Lewis and his guardians to discover what is going on before the clock chimes its last.

As hinted at earlier, it’s hard not to draw similarities between this and Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps adaptation; both are aimed at slightly older kids, both feature a moderate amount of child-friendly spook...and of course, both feature Jack Black. But that’s really where the similarities end. The House with a Clock in Its Walls seems a lot more grounded in its narrative; whereas Goosebumps delighted in ramping up the scale of the chaos, The House With a Clock In Its Walls is a far more small-scale, insular affair...which is quite a surprise, considering how...excessive Eli Roth’s movies tend to be.

Jack Black is, of course, Jack Black...but it’s an interesting decision to throw Cate Blanchett into the mix; there’s an amusing back-and-forth between the two, who bicker like an old married couple. They’re definitely fun to watch, and it’s interesting seeing what Jack Black can do with another character, almost equally as zany, to work off as opposed to rehashing his usual ‘wacky loner’ role.

It’s a real shame because the pieces are all there. Magic. Gothic mansions. Steampunk. A room of creepy automata. Blanchett. Black. MacLachlan. But something is just missing. There are some interesting nods to real-world fears, with hints to the effect World War II had on America, but the movie never quite clicks into place as much as I’d like.

Ultimately, The House with a Clock In Its Walls is a fun movie, but ironically enough lacks the magic to cement it as a family movie that will last the ages. It’s a shame; had it been released ten or fifteen years ago it would have seemed new and exciting, but with the film world already thoroughly acquainted with Goosebumps and Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, it just quite doesn’t hold up. 

Phil Taberner

The House With a Clock In Its Walls at CeX

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