It must have been a fascinating pitch. Eli Roth, director of blood-hungry, gore-fascinated Hostel and The Green Inferno, wants to make a family-friendly number, adapting a much-loved novel from 1973. The pitch clearly went well, as we now have the well-meaning, if muddled, final product of The House with A Clock in Its Walls.
Roth is clearly a talented director, and it would be the height of snobbery to dismiss his efforts from the off. Roth adapts his style well in his attempts to capture the charm and warmth of his inspiration, the 1980s Amblin classics like The Goonies and Gremlins. His film never reaches their god-tier level as it admires them rather than adds to the subgenre of film.
Roth’s other surprising achievement in this adaptation is the strong performances he encourages out of all three leads. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are the comedic duo you never knew you needed. Their constant bickering, back and forth interplay and their chemistry are the film’s strongest assets. Black continues his recent, and endearing, career thread of charming weirdos, and Blanchett shows she has another string to her bow. Owen Vaccaro impresses too as the young kid thrown into the world of magic and mishap.
The issues arise when the film strays too deeply into the dark. Considering this is a film for children, the inclusion of blood magic, necromancy, skin shifting, and the overly potent threat of death all feels overly grisly. The film’s last act only compounds this, with a muddling finale and the unwelcome addition of Kyle McLachlan’s nasty villain.
Don’t write this film off as there are some good moments in here, especially when Blanchett and Black are on-screen. Yet it’s dark, flawed, and often too scary, so the question becomes: who is this film for?
CAST: Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Lorenza Izzo, Kyle MacLachlan, Owen Vacarro
DIRECTOR: Eli Roth
WRITERS: Eric Kripke (screenplay by), John Bellairs (based on the novel by)
SYNOPSIS: A young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt aids his magical uncle in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world.