The House with a Clock in its Walls
Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett
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…an incredibly entertaining, if derivative around the edges, family-friendly fantasy flick…
This has to be the biggest cinematic swerve of the year. Eli Roth, the neo-exploitation devotee who brought us such family-friendly(!) features as Cabin Fever, Hostel and even the nauseating Death Wish from earlier this same year, is at the helm of what could easily be mistaken for a lost Goosebumps sequel. Is he selling out or just trying to do something different? Well, strangely enough, he doesn’t seem to be doing either. Not only does this manage to stand out nicely all on its own, it actually fits in closer with Roth’s aesthetic than it would seem at first glance.
Jack Black as yet another eccentric uncle brings that same quirkiness that made his take on R. L. Stine so fun, but gives the warlock enough of his own self-consciously pompous identity to stand out. Opposite Cate Blanchett, the rapid-fire ribbings they throw at each other makes for some nice witty fun. And then there’s Owen Vaccaro as the erudite lead, in his first film without a parent in the name and that actually merits watching. Between the three of them, the film is kept on sturdy ground throughout all the whimsy, only for Kyle MacLachlan as the villain to give a surprisingly unnerving performance. For a family film, this is pretty intense and it’s not just him who has that effect.
While cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (School Of Rock, Disturbia, Death Wish) fills the frame with golden-tinged wonder, the innards of the story give way to an obsidian heart. Beneath the veneer of living chairs and crapping topiaries (a bit of Roth’s juvenile pandering still lives from the looks of it), there is a story about blood rituals, raising the dead and genocide. Cut from a familiarly murky cloth, but snipped from a more innocent time. A time where interests in the more macabre side of the world likely began to blossom, and where an understanding of what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘strange’ made the latter that much more appealing.
Because regardless of how the ‘normal’ world tries to shut out the darker elements, they’re still there. Whether it’s the pains of grief, the woes of exclusion or the horrors of war, no amount of shielding stops these things from existing. And in the world of this film, they carry the same mortal burden as demons, evil witches and murderous jack-o’-lanterns. All of the spookiness that makes for great Halloween horror, but with a learnedness that shows maybe the world could use some more strange. Maybe we needn’t be so scared of what makes us uncomfortable. Hell, there might even be some fun in it for the right people. It sums up Roth’s entire schtick in the most appealing way yet.
The House with A Clock in its Walls not only fits in astoundingly well with Eli Roth’s larger aesthetic, it’s also an incredibly entertaining, if derivative around the edges, family-friendly fantasy flick. One that isn’t afraid of the darkness and invites us along for the ride.