In an interesting career move, director Eli Roth, the man behind torture porn gorefests such as Cabin Fever, the two Hostel films and Green Inferno has now turned his attention to family-friendly comedy horror in the form of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, produced by Dreamworks and adapted from the 1973 book by John Bellairs.
It tells the story of ten-year-old orphan Lewis Barnavelt and his introduction to the hidden world of witches and warlocks when he is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan after the death of his parents. Set in 1955 in a typical small American town, the film plays with many of the tropes that have already been extensively mined in other films and television series over the years.
Unlike the current trend of “out” supernatural entities who reside in Bon Temps or Purgatory, this vision of America is tied to the fifties, the characters living hidden lives behind the facade of respectable baby-boomer suburbia in much the same way that Samantha Stephens and her family did in Bewitched in the sixties and seventies.
The script by Supernatural creator Eric Kripke is, at best, competent but is lifted greatly by the presence of an A-list cast in the form of Jack Black as Jonathan Barnavelt and Cate Blanchett as his neighbour and friend, the glamorous Florence Zimmerman; once an extremely powerful witch, following a rather vague wartime trauma involving the loss of her family Mrs Zimmerman’s powers have become somewhat unreliable.
Jonathan lives in an enchanted old house once owned by his late friend and professional partner Isaac Izzard (Kyle MacLachlan in flashback). In an act of dark magic, Izzard implanted a doomsday device in the fabric of the house in the form of a clock, dying in the process, and it is now Jonathan’s mission in life to locate and destroy the device before it can be activated, and the arrival of Lewis both complicates and expedites this mission as he discovers his own natural abilities as a warlock under Jonathan’s tutelage.
As Lewis, young Owen Vaccaro ably conveys his wonder and terror as events unfold around him while also negotiating the social pitfalls of fifties high school life, and also manages not to fade into the background in his numerous scenes with Jack Black which is quite the feat. In a refreshing change to the current over-reliance on visual effects, Roth wisely chooses to dial everything back and deploys them only at the service of the story thus relying on character, performance and atmosphere to do the heavy lifting.
Unfortunately, The House with a Clock in Its Walls leaves several secondary characters as cyphers, particularly Lewis’ would-be schoolfriend Tarby Corrigan who clearly has an interesting backstory which is never explored. Comedy horror is one of the most difficult genres to pull off successfully, particularly for a family audience, and Roth certainly pushes the envelope of the 12 rating with one effect in particular freaking out one of the children in the audience of this performance.
Given the book was the first in a series of ten, there’s every possibility this may turn into a franchise but, as with so many big-budgets films these days, the quality of the script falls below the quality of the cast, without whom it would have been far less watchable, however it was entertaining enough if not particularly memorable.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is currently on general release