The House With a Clock in it's Walls


Jordan Bosch

It’s pretty obvious that The House with a Clock in its Walls was made by someone unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the genre of childrens fantasy. And that’s no surprise, Eli Roth is best known for splatter films like the Hostel series and The Green Inferno. He departed from gratuitous gore already this year for the action remake Death Wish, but this movie is his first attempt at a family film. It’s based on the first in a series of young adult novels by John Bellairs, and there is the sense of a mythos and larger world to this story. However it’s handled only about as well as The Dark Tower, heavily explained but little explored.

It’s about an eccentric boy called Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who after his parents’ death goes to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a mysterious old mansion. As it turns out, Jonathan is secretly a warlock and his neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) an even more experienced witch. While Lewis adjusts to life in the new town and new school, he learns magic himself until the time comes when the evil warlock who built the house, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) makes his return.

This movie is horribly written. The dialogue is often stunted and awkward, full of clumsy exposition, repetitiveness, and unnatural discourse. Lewis is a prolific dictionary reader, which is both a lazy attempt at quirkiness and an excuse for elaborate verbiage that defines the perplexing way he talks. And the script, by Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, likes to spell things out for the audience despite obvious signifiers. There’s frequent bizarre intonation to the line delivery, with actors accentuating the wrong parts of a phrase or mugging for exclamation. I don’t blame the performers though as Roth has never been a good actors’ director. Vaccaro gets the worst of this though, as the way his character is written is already pretty alien and annoying without him being directed so incompetently. He and the other child actors come off terribly thanks to this, and any of the scenes set at school or with his peers are excruciating. The adult actors are able to fare a little better though. Jack Black has to work through some painful performance obligations but he’s genuinely trying, and does manage some of his charm every now and again. And Cate Blanchett of course is great, simultaneously exemplifying how she can make the most of a thin role and why she’s way above this material. But MacLachlan’s screen-time is dominated by hamminess and heavy make-up, and he doesn’t perform well through either.


There are a lot of structural problems too, such as some very inconsistent pacing and a few cases of insensible editing that confuses the flow of the narrative. The story is very typical for a kids fantasy series, especially one from the 1970s (though it’s set in the ‘50s for no discernible reason) with a highly predictable journey and conflict. Though the evil plan is of the especially dumb variety. In this, there are moments where Roth channels his interest in disturbing horror with some relatively tense imagery. This is a Halloween movie after all, and there’s some good Halloween atmosphere to it, as well as a couple minor scares it tries to get across.

But the strength of The House with a Clock in its Walls is its visual aesthetic and production design; essentially, the house with a clock in its walls itself. There’s rich detail to both the architecture and the artefacts that really pops with a warm vibrancy. The house works as both a great haunted mansion and a veritable magical wonderland, and is shot with the crisp colour and depth of something between del Toro and Chris Columbus. It’s beautifully designed and really creative, especially in some of the flourishes. Moving photographs and windows aren’t new to anyone who’s seen a Harry Potter film, but one of the many exposition scenes for example, is presented through an old kinetoscope, where we see characters performing a magic show in the silent style of a Georges Méliés trick film. It’s a pretty neat homage.


But the visual effects aren’t quite as up to snuff. Some of them are pretty good, such as a bunch of eerie marionettes, but others, such as a transfiguration process and a topiary lion, are perhaps a little too close to Robert Rodriguez in terms of believability. And like Rodriguez’s kids flicks, this movie has a puerile sense of humour, relying a few too many times on toilet jokes and cringing one-liners that condescend to the audience, both children and adults -and the CGI often facilitates these. However, unintentional though it was, this movie does have perhaps the scariest image I’ve seen in a movie this year, with a visual effect relating to Black’s character late in its run.

This is a bad family movie, but of a very specific kind, in the mould of 90s fantasy offerings like The Witches, Hocus Pocus, and A Simple Wish. Which makes it stand out, at least until that Goosebumps sequel comes in a few weeks. The look and creativity of this film is very much to be appreciated, and to some degree, the actors trying their best. But The House with a Clock in its Walls is still missing some very vital cogs.

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