Sometimes a combination of director and source material sounds wrong. Like “A political drama from the director of ‘Anchorman 2’” or “The YA sensation brought to life by the director of ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’” or anything involving the description “A film by Uwe Boll”. And naturally, the first reaction to “a whimsical children’s fantasy from director Eli Roth” is one of, well, shock. After all, this is the guy who made the ‘Death Wish' remake, ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘Hostel’ isn’t exactly known for his whimsy.
Adding to the confusion is the presence of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett - two actors who would seem to be a cut above Roth’s usual wheelhouse (no offence, Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves). The good news is this adaptation of the John Bellairs novel is pleasant enough. The bad news - unlike the best kids’ films of this or any other era - ‘The House With A Clock In Its Walls’ is a film made for kids, not one that’s made for families. Most grownups are unlikely to get that much of a kick out of it.
Newly-orphaned youngster Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) winds up staying with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Black) and his mysterious companion Florence (Blanchett) in a house that has more to it than meets the eye. We learn that Jonathan’s a warlock, Florence is a witch, and there’s a clock somewhere in the house that could hold the secret to a mystery involving Jonathan’s old partner in magic Isaac Izzard (Kyle McLachlan). It’s simple, paint by numbers stuff, and it hits all the notes you’d expect. Lewis is an outcast at school, puts his trust in someone he shouldn’t, and does some things he’s been explicitly told not to. And bad things happen as a result.
Director Roth and writer Eric Kripke walk a fine line - trying to cram in as much whimsy, youth-oriented horror and Harry Potter-esque hijinks they can within 100-odd minutes. For younger viewers, they no doubt succeed. The magic looks good, some of the baddies are suitably scary, and there’s plenty of exciting set pieces on the way. But Roth, who has fused horror and humour more successfully in the likes of ‘Cabin Fever’ seems to be straining to try and bring all the ingredients together in a film targeted at much younger viewers.
The biggest problem for older viewers is that a lot of this feels familiar, and feels like it’s been done better in the past (such as the Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell helmed entries in the uncannily similar ‘Harry Potter’ series - which, weirdly, came from source material released some two decades after ‘House’).
Roth’s direction has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the film features a Danny Elfman-esque score that is so heavy-handed you can almost hear someone shrieking “You will be magically transported! Feel the whimsy! BE ENCHANTED BY ALL THESE CUTE GOINGS ON!!”.
The performances are all also, all over the place. Blanchett sounds like she’s trying out for a pantomime. Black who has a tremendous ability to bring characters to life feels like little more than a PG-rated version of his Tenacious D character and McLachlan gets nowhere near enough to do as the great warlock gone bad.
There are some genuinely heartfelt scenes and some legitimately disturbing elements, but Roth fails to effectively blend the light and the dark, with the result that the whole family could enjoy.
Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's 'Dead Bang'. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of places.