Growing up in the ‘80s, there was a certain kind of kids’ movie that’s all but extinct these days: one that wasn’t afraid to be weird and dark and even a little scary. Movies like The Dark Crystal and The Secret of NIMH and The Witches have almost nothing in common with the sort of computer animated talking-and-farting animal movies churned out today. Director Eli Roth is clearly much more a fan of the former, which is why his new film The House With a Clock in its Walls is a kids’ movie willing to be fun and silly but also genuinely scary. I’ve missed the scary.
Based on the 1973 book of the same name by John Bellairs, The House With a Clock in its Walls tells the story of Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a recently orphaned 10-year old who comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Lewis learns that his uncle is a powerful warlock – a “boy witch” – and that his neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a witch. Jonathan’s house is full of delightful magic, but he and Florence spend all of their free time hunting for clock left behind the walls years earlier by the house’s original owner, Isaac Izard (Kyle McLachlan). As Lewis begins learning magic and trying to fit in at school, he learns more about his uncle’s past, his relationship to Isaac Izard, and just what will happen when that clock in the walls chimes for the last time.
If not for seeing his name listed as the director in the opening credits, you might not even know that it was Eli Roth directing The House With a Clock in its Walls. Given his previous harder-edged, often juvenile, always blood soaked output, he’s not the first filmmaker that comes to mind to helm a PG-rated kids’ movie produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Films. While he might not be the obvious choice, he is an inspired choice. His background in horror means he knows how to create atmosphere and build a scare, even those of the tamer PG-rated variety found here.
There’s an even better argument for why Roth is qualified for a movie like this, though. With the exception of last year’s Death Wish, Roth’s disappointing and leaden major studio debut, all of Eli Roth’s movies share a real enthusiasm for their subject matter – he’s a guy who is excited to make the movies he makes. Even when the movies don’t work for me (I cannot count myself among the fans of The Green Inferno), there is a clear sense of celebratory joy for his material that radiates right off the screen. That joy is all over The House With a Clock in its Walls, and it’s very apparent that Roth is having a blast bringing this world to life and making a scary movie without being able to rely on his splatstick shtick. This is a movie that has a lot of fun being a movie.
From a story perspective, there’s not much here that isn’t already familiar to anyone who’s read any of the Harry Potter series. That’s not the fault of the source material, written almost 30 years before Hogwarts was even a thing. But it’s nearly impossible to watch a movie in 2018 in which a young boy loses his parents and is brought to a special house where he learns magic and must prevent the resurrection of an evil warlock and not have HP on the brain. There are some interesting layers to the story – the horrors of World War II play a major role in a few characters’ motivations – but House offers little in the way of surprises. Even the performances are more or less what you would expect: Cate Blanchett is great and elegant and doing a slightly inconsistent accent, while Jack Black is fun but only ever really capable of being… Jack Black.
We don’t necessarily go to family films to be shown things we’ve never seen before, however, so it wouldn’t be fair to hold The House With a Clock in its Walls to such a standard, even with its horror genre pedigree. All this one has to do is entertain, to avoid pandering to children or insulting the intelligence of adults, and hopefully work as a gateway horror movie for the young kids who see it and walk away having been scared just enough that they want to be scared again. At these things, the film succeeds. I can’t say for sure that it’s going to be widely remembered five or ten years from now or if Eli Roth has a future as a family filmmaker, but if the movie does work the way some of those ‘80s films did and just a few kids come out of The House With a Clock in its Walls having been turned on to scary movies, I’m calling that a job well done.