The House with a Clock in its Walls misses a few beats
The House with a Clock in its Walls is exactly the kind of adaptation of that proves good storytelling is all about execution. On paper, this is the kind of story, that with some good decisions, could make for a wonderful movie. And while the film certainly has a lot going for it, a few key elements prevent it from reaching its potential.
Based on a 1973 children’s book, parts of the film suffer the way that John Carter did. Many of the ideas in the story feel much more derivative in 2018 than they likely did 45 years ago. In fact, having an orphaned boy suddenly thrust into a hidden world of warlocks and witches is an awful lot like a certain book series, even if almost all of the other details are different from that bespectacled boy wizard.
Set in 1955, we meet the newly orphaned Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) on a bus to Michigan to stay with his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). Once there, he moves into a house full of strange objects and and antiques all belonging to the deceased Isaac Izzard (Kyle MacLachlan). He also meets Jonathan’s best friend and neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett), as well as the nosy Mrs. Hanchet (Colleen Camp) and his classmate Tarby (Sunny Suljic). Soon, Lewis discovers that his uncle and Florence practice actual magic and the house contains a multitude of secrets.
The biggest joys in the film come from its cast, specifically Cate Blanchett and Jack Black. Both of these are perfect performers for this kind of film, equally capable of creating humor or pathos depending on the requirements of the scene. While we all know Blanchett is one of the most charismatic humans currently alive, Black’s versatility has always been underrated, so seeing him get to stretch just a bit is a treat. Their chemistry as scene partners feels unexpected, but it likely stems from them both being good actors and knowing the kind of performances this movie calls for.
Sadly, not all of the performances bolster the film. I can’t blame Owen Vaccaro for his performance. The kid gives his all, and is incredibly intense in almost every scene. While it often doesn’t match the scene he is in, Vaccaro is absolutely swinging for the fences and I appreciate it. The biggest challenge is that Lewis is more a walking bundle of affectations–carrying around dictionaries and wearing goggles everywhere–than a fully realized character. The story basically rides on the fact that he’s a smart kid in an unfamiliar situation, but Vaccaro’s intensity makes it stand out that much more.
The other issue that the film has is the pacing in the final act. The way the action unfolds, it includes the characters regrouping and explaining more of what is happening than should be necessary. It makes the final portion of the film drag where it should hold attention, not come to a complete halt. It would contrast it with earlier in the film, where director Eli Roth allows for quieter moments between characters to carry emotional weight and it works very effectively.
This is only my second exposure to Roth as a filmmaker (the first being the “Thanksgiving” trailer from Grindhouse), mostly since his horror films seem a bit more extreme than I can typically tolerate. However, He seems like a perfect fit for the material. The creepy atmosphere of the house and the gross-out humor (a living topiary that poops!) are certainly well within his range, but the quieter moments between the characters really sing. It also contains one of the most disturbing images I’ve ever seen in a film. I think it is meant to be funny, but it just left me uncomfortable and confused (it’s probably more disturbing for adults than kids).
The House with a Clock in its Walls doesn’t quite have enough charm to outpace its faults, which makes it feel especially lacking considering there are so many good spooky films for kids out there.
The House with a Clock in its Walls opens in Philly theaters today.