If there’s one thing that Eli Roth, director of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, is known for it’s gruesome horror. He sliced ankles in Hostel and peeled skin in Cabin Fever; it’s reasonable to suggest that his boundary line is far wider than most every mainstream Hollywood filmmaker. This time, he’s managed to outdo himself. Just wait until you set your eyes on baby body Jack Black…you may well wish that you could unsee it, but it’ll be indelibly burned into your mind’s eye for eternity. Oh, the humanity!!
It’s a bizarre moment, one which takes the idea of something horrifying, here being de-aged out of existence, and puts a comedic spin on it. One which may have been funny if it weren’t so disturbing, and might have been genuinely scary if it wasn’t happening in a final act which almost entirely cuts itself free from reality. Mixing the comedic with the macabre is an approach which Roth has made a career out of. Whereas in the past his films have leaned heavily into the darker side of his storytelling tendencies, this is a considerably gentler affair. Spooky, rather than grim, it has plenty of laughs and a style which instantly marks it out as an Amblin Entertainment production; visually it’s right at home with the likes of Gremlins, Casper and Monster House.
Horror doesn’t have to be just for adults, after all. Growing up I was a huge fan of the likes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps, and this tracks closely to the latter. And not only because Jack Black stars in both this and the Goosebumps movie. Much like the classic Goosebumps TV tales of old, The House with a Clock in Its Walls tells a broad story, fills its world with broadly creepy elements (automatons, dolls, the undead) and places a young child at the centre of it all. Owen Vaccaro features as the newly orphaned Lewis, a goggle-wearing outsider sent to live with his eccentric Warlock uncle Jonathan and his Witch neighbour Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). His new home is an eerie gated mansion seemingly stuck in a permanent state of Halloween. And somewhere within the walls of the house lies a darkly powerful clock with the power to turn back time and erase all history.
The house itself is nothing short of tremendous, every inch of its surface filled with detail, a truly magical place, equal parts chilling and beautiful. And the gorgeous production design extends to the scenes beyond the house, 1955 Americana recreated through rose-tinted spectacles. It all works as the ideal playground for Jack Black to chomp his way through like a theatrical Doctor Strange. It’s a typical Black performance, tirelessly silly, effortlessly endearing. Blanchett meanwhile does her fair share of scenery chewing as well, yet she also adds an emotional depth to her character that’s much needed by the film. As for Vaccaro, he does a commendable job as the focal point of the film’s kind-hearted message: to be yourself, even if you are a bit weird.
If for The House with a Clock in Its Walls being itself means having Cate Blanchett headbutt a pumpkin, then so be it. Who are we to say that it can’t just be a bit weird?
Rating (out of 5):