Movie Review: The House with a Clock in its Walls
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Director: Eli Roth
Stars: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro
by Jason Koenigsberg
Eli Roth, a director known for his bloody and gruesome horror films such as Hostel (2006) and The Green Inferno (2015), shows a bit of range with PG scares in the Amblin production The House with a Clock in its Walls. The film opens up with an old school Universal logo that cleverly transforms into the Amblin symbol. Then in the opening shot, we see a clock, a bus ticket, a handwritten letter, and a cookie as we hear Jack Black narrating some exposition about his nephew going to live with him after his parents have passed away. The boy is on his way to Michigan in 1955. The old Universal logo was a nice touch but sadly The House with a Clock in its Walls does not have a universal appeal. Eli Roth knows his audience this time and has tailored a film almost exclusively for ten-year-old kids who like creepy things and are not quite ready to leap into the harder, nastier world of R-rated horror movies. As the story progressed so did the predictability and a more seasoned cinephile will be yawning more than laughing or jumping in their seat.
That does not mean The House with a Clock in its Walls is a complete waste for the otherwise curious moviegoer. This film has truly outstanding production design. Very intricately detailed sets that will make the viewer want to lean in and try and catch as much of the background on display in each frame as they can. There is scattered humor throughout that will deliver a few light chuckles and there are some chilling moments but The House with a Clock in its Walls is a PG-rated horror film and unlike some great films of previous decades that can be enjoyed by everyone, this is a movie that is designed specifically for a certain age group and will thoroughly satisfy only that demographic. The performances are uniformly solid considering the talented actors on screen. Jack Black continues to excel in doing his family-friendly persona as a screwball wizard, and Cate Blanchett lends her gravitas to a role that could have been a throwaway but instead, comes off as motherly and more layered adding to the film in a way a lesser actress would not have enhanced it. Owen Vaccaro is suitable as the misfit child who is trying to navigate his way through a new school, new friends and a very strange new home life.
The House with a Clock in its Walls has issues that will resonate with elementary school and middle school children but it also connects thematically with Eli Roth’s other films and his nihilistic view of the world. The plot involving a lonely boy thrust into strange new surroundings and how he longs for his family back and would do anything to make a friend is handled in a noble manner. But more interesting is how Eli Roth threw in themes of anti-war and anti-politics into The House with a Clock in its Walls. A character played by Kyle MacLachlan is traumatized by the evils he witnessed in World War II and comes home a very changed magician which sets off the course of events that haunt the actual house. Eli Roth does not care much for our political system as most Americans do not these days and illustrate his opinion through a school election. One child befriends our main character early on simply to get his vote. Then once the election is over and he wins, he completely turns on Owen Vaccaro’s character further pushing him into being a social outcast and isolating him from his peers. One student even warned him that would happen and that he is nice every year until the school elections, then he turns into a bully. The House with a Clock in its Walls is not a terrible movie, just not a movie for everyone. See it if you really love great set design or if you have a kid that loves spooky stuff and want to get that child in the mood for Halloween.
If you are looking for a family-friendly scary movie that children and adults can enjoy check out Coraline (2009). It has great haunting imagery, dark visuals and better than average voice acting for an animated film.