Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchette, Owen Vaccaro
Plot: Orphaned Louis is adopted by his wacky uncle (Black) who lives in an old house with clocks covering every wall. Needless to say, something mysterious is going on.
Genre splicing is a tricky balance to get right. Horror comedy has always had varying degrees of success, ranging from the superb Shaun of the Dead to the painful Scary Movies. However, Eli Roth’s latest picture, The House With A Clock In Its Walls goes one further and tries to blend horror with a children’s comedy film. Therefore, predictably, The House With A Clock In Its Walls is let down by the odd moment where it seems unsure of what film it is trying to be. On one hand, probably the one put forward by the marketing team, it is a fantasy adventure story, not too dissimilar to similar entries of the genre. A young boy, socially awkward and the odd duck of any situation, is orphaned and sent off to live with a distant relative he has never heard of. In this case, it is Jack Black’s exuberant, wacky uncle (read Jack Black doing what Jack Black does best), who has a massive house where things go bump in the night and a strange ticking haunts the hallways. It wouldn’t be a big spoiler to reveal that the boy, Louis, soon finds out that the house is submerged in magic and Jack Black is actually a practicing warlock. There is a nice beat where Roth reveals anyone can be a magician if they are willing to study, which is perfect fictional fodder for the young viewers still bitter over their lack of Hogwarts letter. However, while there is some really strong children’s cinema stuff, it is paired with some fairly extreme horror. There isn’t anything that arguably harms its 12A rating, per se, but because the scary stuff is nestled in a warm, family friendly picture, it is all the more jarring. A cuckoo clock with a devil’s head provides the first jump scare and the very fact it is utterly unexpected snaps the audience awake. There are other moments that just feel a ‘bit much’. Anyone that has a fear of puppets or dolls will be paralysed when the heroes are surrounded by creepy minions. And the villain, a dark warlock brought back from the dead, is hardly the usual children’s movie bad guy, a rotting corpse with a sneering plan to end the world. It feels a little like a Tim Burton picture, when he has a go at family friendly material, but lacking that surreal fantasy tone, which makes the spooky stuff that much harder to swallow. Basically, if this movie tanks in the box office, its failures will be done to a lack of clear target audience.
But, like most strange genre-splicing movies, this film also contains the kind of scenes you won’t see anywhere else. There is something easily captivating about The House With A Clock In Its Walls. This picture enchants constantly, whether it is the tremendous set design or the magic of its central story. Even when scaring the audience, it is hard not to admire the scenery. The performances are strong with a riveting turn from the young Owen Vaccaro. Usually the child actor would cripple a movie of this nature, but Vaccaro balances the weird vibes with genuine likeability, which is important as the character has his fair share of bad decision-making due to schoolboy dilemmas. It is nice to see Jack Black and Cate Blanchette jump genres for a little bit. Blanchette tries her hand at comedy, while Black takes on the heavy stuff for a while. Of course, we’ve seen Jack Black surprisingly deep before, but it is nice to be reminded, as the weight of unexpected parenting looms over the upbeat character. Blanchette has fun too with a comedy character, using her matriarchal looks for comedy effect, self-depreciating herself as the skeletal ice queen. At the same time, neither actor loses their unique brand of talent. Black was never going to go full-serious and those wanting to see the usual brand of Blanchette grandiose will not be disappointed. The good acting is important, because no matter how much the story tries to shake you, they will keep you hooked into the crazy ride. Which is important when the film gives you a scene where a grotesque baby with Jack Black’s head urinates during the finale… Yeah, this film is definitely one of a kind.
Final Verdict: A bit much in places for its supposed child audience, but it has a certain something that grips regardless.