The trailers for The House with a Clock in Its Wall advertise a generic kid’s comedy involving a wacky wizard played by Jack Black and a stuffy British cliché played by Cate Blanchet. Instead, I was treated to a refreshingly dark and terrifying horror film that serves as a clever throwback to the Amblin Entertainment children-centric classics from the 80’s. Jack Black plays a wacky warlock (boy witch) with magnetic nuance and heart, while Cate Blanchet hilariously plays a once powerful witch who finds herself in self-doubt after a terrible tragedy. Established horror director Eli Roth, known mostly for his gory and torture schlock like Cabin Fever and Hostel, directed the film and you’d never know it based on his previous filmography and especially the aforementioned misleading trailers. I really have to harp on the advertising, because I feel like it will damage the success of the film once word gets out. I feel like this movie is a little too scary for the children the marketing is aiming towards. Some parts play out exactly like a tense and unsettling horror film. Even as a hardened horror film fan it’s pretty damned effective, and there are some clever jump scares and loud noises that got me, but it still falls in that uncomfortable spot between too scary for kids and not scary enough for adults. If I had to measure the scare factor, I’d put it above Gremlins, but below Poltergeist. Also, side note, I saw it on IMAX and before it started they showed Michael Jackson’s iconic Thriller music video in a beautiful 3D conversion. This was a perfect mini-double feature that complimented The House with a Clock in Its Wall quite well.
“…learns that Jonathan and Florence are warlocks and witches respectively, the two begin training Lewis so that someday he can become a warlock himself.”
Based on a children’s novel by writer John Bellairs, the film centers on newly orphaned 10 year-old Lewis (played by Owen Vaccaro) who is forced to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan in a magically haunted house that once belonged to an evil sorcerer (played by Kyle MacLachlan) and his witch wife (played by Renée Elise Goldsberry). There is an evil clock that is hidden somewhere in the house, and Jonathan and his next-door neighbor Florence (played by Cate Blanchet) have spent a year trying to find it. When Lewis learns that Jonathan and Florence are warlocks and witches respectively, the two begin training Lewis so that someday he can become a warlock himself. Meanwhile, at school, Lewis struggles to befriend and impress Tarby, the popular kid at school (played by Sunny Suljic) with a reckless display of his newfound magical powers. Admittedly I’m not the biggest Jack Black fan. With a few exceptions, I find his roles often fall between unbearably obnoxious and mildly tolerable. There’s just something about him that gets on my nerves, but he’s been knocking it straight out of the park lately. I adored him in 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and here he’s more subdued and quiet. He shows a strong capability as an actor with charm and warmth. Florence is probably my favorite character in the movie. Blanchet is almost always great, and this film is no exception. Her character comes across as both confident and intelligent, but also tragically traumatized and vulnerable. Vaccaro does a great job as Lewis, and never makes the character feel annoying or unnatural. Vaccaro, Black, and Blanchet work well off of each other, and almost immediately they feel like a solid and likable surrogate family. Most of MacLachlan and Goldsberry’s screen time involves flashbacks, but during their climactic showdown, they get to be campy and gloriously sinister. The best part of this movie is the character interplay between Jonathan and Florence. Black and Blanchet have the perfect balance of love and loathing for one another, and they have some laugh-out-loud insults they hurl at one another at breakneck speed. If I have to complain about one thing, it’s the subplot involving Lewis and Tarby. At a certain point, Lewis tries to impress Tarby by showing him his magical abilities. We’ve seen Lewis competently use his powers by this point in the movie, yet instead of showing him a pretty convincing trick that would prove he’s not lying, he goes ahead and he breaks his Uncle’s one rule and steals a powerful book containing a grotesque spell that’s beyond his capabilities and control. I get that this occurrence is meant to propel the story forward and set up the confrontation with the villain, but it makes no sense. It would have played better if Lewis wasn’t powerful enough to perform anything convincing, so in his desperation, he has to steal his Uncle’s book in order to boost his powers into performing a more bombastic and thrilling trick. This plot hole is downright frustrating, and it irritated the hell out of me.
“…scary, poignant, thrilling, and just a ton of fun.”
There are a ton of visual effects, but most are very well done and convincing. I can’t praise the film enough for feeling fresh and different. The cinematography is well done, and the atmospheric set pieces are gothic and gorgeous. This is absolutely Eli Roth’s best film. It’s scary, poignant, thrilling, and just a ton of fun. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone under the age of 10, because like I said, there’s some really frightening stuff that happens, and the jump scares might be too much for little ones, but this film is so much better than I thought it would be. I really hope it does well at the box office because I’m interested in where the characters could go next. I know there’s an entire book series to draw from. If the silly title and the terrible trailers turned you off, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you give it a chance.
The House with a Clock in Its Wall (2018) Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eric Kripke and John Bellairs (Novel). Starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchet, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Sunny Suljic, Renée Elise Goldsberry.
8 out of 10