Movie Review – The House With a Clock In Its Walls
It could be an early Halloween film for children. It’s not as scary as the haunted house tactics in Stephen King’s It (2017). The house in this film is more akin to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. There’s a darkness to it. Literally, the house doesn’t have a lot of bright lights, but, at the same time, there’s cuddly aspects. Director Eli Roth (Death Wish and Hostel) knows a thing or two about darkness and disturbing images to scare his audiences, but he’s rather restrained here because his material is aimed at children, so he can’t be too disturbing. He crafts an adventure that’s more thrilling and emotional than Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, but still not as compelling all around as something like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or Mary and the Witch’s Flower. But that latter film was animated and when it comes to kids in magical adventures, often times animation is a better venue.
However, Harry Potter was a very successful, magical child in cinema. This movie treads on that same ground. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the actor who plays the magical child here is as good an actor as Daniel Radcliffe was as Harry Potter. It might be unfair to judge the acting of someone under the age of 13 so harshly, but when you’ve seen better performances from people around that age, it can’t help but be jarring when a child actor isn’t measuring up. The child actor here is good for most of it, but in a scene where he’s called to cry, it felt awfully false.
Owen Vaccaro (Mother’s Day and Daddy’s Home) stars as Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year-old kid living in Michigan 1955. He’s sent to live with his uncle after his parents pass away. He has to adjust to life in a really, creepy house, as well as life in a new school. Lewis might seem a little odd. He wears goggles on his head almost everyday and he’s constantly reading the dictionary. He’s also not great at sports. It makes him a bit of an outcast at school, but he is able to befriend tentatively one of the popular boys, but Lewis isn’t all that awkward or shy, despite being called a weirdo who likes his magic 8-ball. If one compares this to A Wrinkle in Time, Lewis is between Meg and Charles Wallace.
Jack Black (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and The School of Rock) also stars as Jonathan Barnavelt, the aforementioned uncle to Lewis. He’s a bit of a bon vivant, or he’s just a bit of an eccentric. He has the personality of a stage musician for good reason. Jonathan used to be a stage musician. Instead of a top hat, cape or tails, his clothing choice now is a kimono. Yet, he doesn’t seem to be performing. At least, this film doesn’t depict him doing shows presently, but he at times does have that showman persona, or else Jack Black is just being Jack Black.
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine and The Aviator) co-stars as Florence Zimmerman, the next-door neighbor and friend to Jonathan, although their relationship is a love-hate relationship. They bicker and snipe with each other. They have strong banter, which is them throwing insults back-and-forth, and Florence holds her own, as Blanchett holds her own against Black. It’s their repartee or ribbing that represents the best comedy here and her connection to Jonathan has way more interest than Jonathan and Lewis.
Given that this is Lewis’ story essentially, that’s a bit of a letdown. Again, I’m not sure if that letdown is simply a writing problem or if it’s an acting problem. Sadly, Vaccaro wasn’t pulling his weight totally. There is another child actor in this film that was pulling his weight. Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), who plays Tarby, the aforementioned popular boy who Lewis tries to befriend, is terrific in his role here.
None of this would be an issue if the action were a bit better. The set-pieces and visual effects here are fine, but the magic isn’t as inventive or thrilling as it could have been. The use of a purple umbrella was probably the best prop in the film. The only intriguing sequence was a scene that mimicked a chilling moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds but only the flying animals are replaced with flapping, library books.
Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks and Desperate Housewives) has fun playing his character, Isaac Izard, the villain of this film, but it’s a shame that a data dump about him only comes at the end. Isaac has a relationship to Jonathan that’s akin to the relationship between the central characters in The Prestige (2006). Unfortunately, this film doesn’t develop or explore that relationship as well.
Rated PG for sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.