The House With a Clock in Its Walls
2018, PG, 104 min. Directed by Eli Roth. Starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Sept. 21, 2018
Few phrases seem as ill-suited for each other as "family-friendly" and "Eli Roth." Roth, once heralded by entertainment editors as a "gore merchant," is often positioned as the American director who brought hyperviolent horror films into the Hollywood mainstream. So it comes as no small shock that The House With a Clock in Its Walls may very well be one of the best spooky movies to ever operate under a PG rating. The man known for taking things too far also appears to know exactly where to stop.
The year is 1955, and following the loss of both of his parents, young Lewis (Vaccaro) is sent to Michigan to live with his estranged uncle Jonathan (Black). Soon thereafter, Lewis learns that Jonathan is a warlock (as the young bibliophile notes: noun, a man who practices witchcraft). It's his task to guard the secrets of his miraculous house – complete with wizardly library, shifting windows, and an overly loyal chair – with a little help from his platonic friend Florence (the always-magical Blanchett). You see, the very evil and very dead previous owner of the house (MacLachlan) has designs on taking back what was once his, and it will take all three of them – warlock, witch, and apprentice – to figure out the secrets of the mysterious clock he hid there before it’s too late.
Inevitably, audiences will come in expecting Black’s robust screen presence, and quickly recognize the film’s cheerful 1950s Norman Rockwell meets Edward Gorey aesthetic, but what works best about The House With a Clock in Its Walls is how far Roth manages to push the envelope. He finds little ways to age up his visuals; when books come flying off the shelf to attack Lewis, for example, they leave behind bloody paper cuts across both of his hands, a small touch that will undoubtedly stick with young viewers. Or take the demonic warlock who seems destined to serve as nightmare fuel for the youngest audience members; it’s still a kids’ movie, but one adult horror fans will eventually look back on with genuine affection.
This maturity also extends to the characters. The villain’s evil scheme is inspired by the post-traumatic stress he suffered during World War II; meanwhile, Florence struggles to overcome the magic-shaped void in her life caused by the death of her own daughter. Kids may not be able to fully understand these forms of trauma, but most family movies do themselves no favors by pretending these traumas do not and cannot exist. By never talking or shooting down to its young audience, The House With a Clock in Its Walls proves itself to be – against all odds – a thoroughly charming family film. And just in time for Halloween.