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THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS Has Great Characters, Uncertain Direction (Review)

You can call Eli Roth many things, and at this point, most people have. The provocative director of ultra-violent endeavors like the Hostel films and the Bruce Willis-starring Death Wish remake enjoys pushing buttons. But until now, it would have seemed odd to call him tentative; the guy goes all-in to put his vision onscreen, no matter whom it may offend or upset. At the helm of his first scary movie for kids, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, however, he feels strangely lacking in confidence. He has cast it well enough to keep us entertained, but the actual cinematography and editing are so basic as to call attention to themselves. With an abundance of static medium shots, camera movements kept infrequent and small, and edits that feel like the first assembly cut, the vibe one gets is of a first-time filmmaker, not the seasoned prankster we know Roth to be at his best.

The ’80s logos for Universal and Amblin that kick things off telegraph the movie’s intentions; it wants to be a new Gremlins or Goonies. With its ’50s-set period details, it more closely resembles The Shape of Water, at least at first, with prodigious young orphan Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) on a bus ride to meet his new guardian, familial pariah Jonathan (Jack Black), who just so happens to be a warlock…but a nice one, who lets Lewis eat cookies for every meal. The house in which he lives is an odd one, with walls covered in clocks, stained-glass windows that move and morph, and an armchair that comes to life as if it were a possessed puppy-dog. Odder still is the hidden clock somewhere in the walls, that Jonathan hopes to find before its mysterious countdown to something terrible comes to a close.

To Lewis, however, it’s much more important to try to make friends at his new school, a task made harder by the fact that he’s an overt vocabulary nerd, he wears goggles like his favorite TV superhero, and he’s known to be the kid living in the “murder house,” whose previous owner (an unexpected Kyle MacLachlan) died mysteriously. Haunted by night visitations from the ghost of his mother, and increasingly suspicious of uncle Jonathan, Lewis winds up making some massive mistakes, with the fate of reality as we know it hanging in the balance.

As half of Tenacious D, Black has already tangled with literal demons, and as R.L. Stine in Goosebumps, he’s helped children battle the supernatural, so you already know basically what you’re getting from him. Pairing him with Cate Blanchett, as his former-witch best friend, is inspired; she shifts gears to match him rather than vice-versa, and they have an amusing insult banter throughout to mask the fact that they actually care for one another. By labeling this relationship as platonic upfront, however, the story rather preemptively sands off some of the potential edge that could have really added some dynamic tension.

Vaccaro is fine; you’d probably have avoided him too in elementary school, but his intelligence is ultimately winning. Finally, young actor Sunny Suljic, who recently played Kratos’ son in the latest God of War, also feels like a real find, as the kid at school who may or may not really be Lewis’ friend—a level of ambiguity you don’t often see in actors that young.

Roth, however, only really comes alive when all hell breaks loose for the climax, and more traditional horror elements come into play—a resurrected corpse here, some evil puking pumpkins there. This is clearly his comfort zone, and makes The House with a Clock in Its Walls yet another potential franchise starter (it’s based on a series of books by John Bellairs) where it might have been more fun just to skip to the second movie now that Lewis knows magic and can jump right in to the spooky stuff next time.

Considering Edward Gorey did the illustrations for the original novel, Tim Burton might have been a more obvious choice, but perhaps too obvious. This project is the baby of Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, who scripted and calls the book his favorite from childhood. Relative to Burton, his sensibility is based more on character than style, and the characters are what save the movie; I may not be crazy about the filmmaking itself, but I’d happily spend more time with Black and Blanchett flinging insults about as effortlessly as they do Hadouken-style balls of magic energy.

(Note: IMAX screenings of The House with a Clock in Its Walls will include a 3-D conversion of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video as an intro, though it was not shown to press at my screening. For some, that alone will be worth the price of admission, but if that’s you, check with the theater to make sure it’s included first.)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Images: Universal

Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the LA Film Critics Association, and is also that guy who liked Eli Roth’s Death Wish better than the original. You can find him on all the usual social channels.

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