Eli Roth’s The House with a Clock in its Walls offers laughs and chills sure to please audiences of all ages. Newcomer Owen Vaccaro is a highlight.
We are rapidly approaching the ghoulish season of chills in the air and on the silver screen. And no one has been better able to capture the adult essence of those chills then torture porn maestro, Eli Roth. So it is with just a little bit of surprise and a whole lot of admiration that he chose to take on the children’s novel, The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs as his next project.
Producer Eric Kripke adapted the book of the same name, giving us just enough to scares while keeping us entertained.
Set in 1955, recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) goes to live with his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black) in a creaky old house in New Zebedee, Michigan. Cate Blanchette plays Florence Zimmerman, Jonathan’s neighbor and best friend and together they must figure out what the clock in the house’s walls is before something disastrous happens.
Kripke’s adaptation is a strong component of this film, which explores familiar themes of loss, revenge, magic and haunted houses. What carries the film is in the performances of the central characters. This is my first time seeing Vaccaro perform. Vaccaro was full of introspection and curiosity as the character needed to find a way to fit in. His interaction with Black was the highlight. Whether it was the way the character was written, his performance, his interactions with Black and/or Roth’s direction, the awkward nature Vaccaro projected really propelled his performance. In a daring-do moment, Lewis has to “put up or shut up” when Tarby (Sunny Suljic) challenges his abilities. That particular story strand doesn’t go very far, which was disappointing, but it was symbolic in Lewis’s need to fit in.
Black, on the other hand, while endearing was less of a fatherly figure and more like a big brother, the role of Jonathan testing his acting limits. He plays the comedy well, and he is as much of a child as Vaccaro is. Black excelled in the one or two moments where the story turns dark and dramatic with Cate Blanchett’s Florence.
Coincidentally, Florence has the same characteristics as Lewis making them kindred spirits in terms of their journeys, a nice connection between the two. She sees the best in him and he helps her to correct a past transgression.
Roth’s direction is assured and steady. What was interesting is that his approach to The House with a Clock in its Walls is the same as any of his more, hard-hitting horror films. Here, he mixed levity with scares and chills. It felt as if Charles Addams met Stephen King. If anything, its PG rating is geared for older children with their parents. The scares will probably make younger children cringe while the laughs are juvenile at best, but it plays to the cast’s strengths and their comedic timing.
At its heart, The House with a Clock in its Walls will appeal to history nerds, magicians (and magic lovers) and those who are just looking for a good time at the movies.
The House with a Clock in its Walls has been rated PG by the MPAA. Now in theaters.