The House with a Clock in Its Walls (HCW) is the latest offering from horror director Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever), and weirdly, it’s meant a film for kids.
Based on the children’s book by John Bellairs, HCW follows a young orphan Lewis who is sent to live with his eccentric uncle whom he’s never met before. Upon arriving at his uncle’s house, strange things begin to happen in the house and Lewis soon discovers that his uncle is a warlock on a desperate search for a clock hidden somewhere in the walls of the house. Once the clock stops ticking, it will signal the end of the world.
The film’s concept is an unusual one, as is the casting. This isn’t to say that the film’s cast doesn’t work (because they do), it’s just one I wasn’t expecting it to.
Owen Vaccaro plays weird, sullen Lewis and does a good job for the most part. His character does have tendencies to be a little bit annoying at times, but Owen Vaccaro tackles the film’s content head on and overall his reactions are believable despite the magical chaos around him. While Lewis has many flaws in his character, the film doesn’t shy from showing these moments which was refreshing to see. Truthfully this is also probably one of the most believable children I’ve seen for a long time in a film.
Jack Black plays Lewis’ eccentric uncle Jonathan and as usual, plays essentially himself with his typical Jack Black persona. It works in this film purely because Jack Black brings the comic relief and in a fun obvious way that allows kids to react to him immediately. I felt that this was almost necessary for this film that gives a creepy vibe, which might be something kids aren’t prepared for, but Jack Black helps create regular relief and openly acknowledges that these things are meant to be creepy.
The weirdest casting of all was Cate Blanchett as Jonathan’s best friend and neighbour, Florence Zimmerman. She, of course, steals the show, playing the character with the most depth, and reaching a sensitivity in her characterization that at times is quite mature for a children’s film. But it is Cate Blanchett after all, so I was almost always going to be completely spellbound by her every step of the way.
Director Eli Roth adds his familiar touch of horror to the film, making for another somewhat creepy offering. The creepiness has been toned down because the film is targeted towards families with children, so it’s never going to be a movie with an MA rating. Having said that, I can see a few scenes being too scary for young children and potentially will be become what I call nightmare fuel for those too little to realise it’s all special effects. From cheap scare jumps, through to the pre-empting of death and destruction of the world and ending on a room full of creepy dolls that, you guessed it, come to life. The thrills are many and come quickly before coming to a haltering stop and starting up again.
The film as a whole has the kind of feel to it that you would find in Tim Burton’s children films like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, or other recent additions like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Those films are all a bit wacky but have an air of somberness to them as well which is also what comes across in HCW. Ultimately it is a children’s film that is secretly for adults and targets the kids who feel like misfits.
HCW is a fun but creepy children’s film that’s worth a watch. It probably would have done better with a Halloween release, placing it in the right timing for what it is, but Eli Roth has attempted something different and for the most part has been successful in the telling of this wild and unique tale. See it.