Of all the movie combos I thought I’d never see, Cate Blanchett and Eli Roth could well have been at the top of the list. Two-time Oscar winner Blanchett is considered one of, if not the best actress in Hollywood, a go-to for everything from historical period pieces to modern-day dramas, she not only legitimizes any film she’s in, but she elevates and dignifies it as well. And then there’s Roth, the notorious king of gore, whose movies are so violent, disturbed and bloody that I can’t even watch the trailers. IMDB cites one of the trademarks of his movies as containing “explicit carnage…and female nudity.” Not exactly Blanchett territory.
But every director likes to expand their repertoire, and every actress wants to challenge themselves with something new and different. Where would Cate Blanchett and Eli Roth meet in the middle? Where would someone from the elevated heights of filmmaking meet the purveyor of low-brow horror? Where would they both look and feel a little out of place yet still be able to challenge their artistry? A PG-rated kid’s movie, of course!
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is based on the young adult book by John Bellairs and feels like a mashup of Hugo and Harry Potter. The premise is classic: 10-year old Lewis (played by Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned when his parents die in a car crash. He is forced to go live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who is strange and lives in an even stranger house. Jonathan’s house has a secret—well, many secrets, it turns out—it has a clock in its walls. Finding out where the clock is and what it does are the key plot forces that drive the movie, but they hardly matter. In fact, the story of this movie is sort of pointless and eventually dumb and heavy-handed (Roth couldn’t hide his true nature for long), but there is enough eye candy and enjoyment along the way that you hardly notice.
What Lewis comes to find out is that Jonathan is a warlock and the house he lives in is haunted—in a way. The central story of this movie is something about an evil warlock (Kyle MacLachlan) who used to live there put some kind of curse on the house and Jonathan and his equally-wacky-but-she’s-also-a-witch neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett), have to figure out how to stop it before it destroys all of humanity (yeah, I know). The house is the star of the movie, as almost everything inside it, from clocks to furniture to artwork all seem to have a life and minds of their own. Well, I say the star of the movie is the house, but let’s be honest: it’s the production design team that steals this movie. The production designer Jon Hutman, art directors Andres Cubillan, Walter P. Martishius and Thomas Minton and set decorators Ellen Brill and Tommy Wilson deserve all the kudos here. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is like going to Disneyland during Halloween. Everywhere you look, there’s something cool, something a little scary and something fantastic. The special effects are seamless and fun, too. I truly can’t imagine any kid not loving every second of this.
I will be honest, though, while the set design is massively impressive, there comes a point in the movie where you wish Roth would stop lingering lovingly on every feature. We get it, you spent a lot of money on this set—everything moves and it’s all really spooky and awesome. After a point, you need to just establish yourself there and move on to telling a story. Unfortunately though, the story here doesn’t work really well, but, thankfully, Roth has given himself actors who do. And they, along with the impressive design work, save this movie from being an eye-rolling mess.
What also helps is the development of Lewis’s character. In a classicly Spielbergian way, Roth uses the point-of-view of a parent-less 10-year old boy to inject heart into the movie. Lewis is a weirdo too, in his own way, and has trouble fitting in at school. He gains confidence through learning how to cast spells with Jonathan, but Lewis realizes that the only way he can stand up to bullies is to believe in himself. Lewis’s subplot is the most compelling of the movie and will be the most relatable to kids.
What also really helps this movie is how genre-bending and flexible Jack Black can be. He is the sort of actor who can be believably evil at one moment and make you laugh uproariously the next. He is wacky and bombastic, weird and colorful. Cate Blanchett offsets his weirdness perfectly, as her Mrs. Zimmerman is proper and dignified, although she loves to tease Jonathan and these mutual moments of friendship are genuinely lovely.
Overall, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a great treat for kids who don’t scare that easily. I was sitting next to an 8-year old (or so) girl, and she was absolutely entranced by the whole movie. There are some jump-scares and semi-horror elements, but it’s all palatable for kids who can handle their fun a little dark and twisted. In the end, Eli Roth surprised and impressed me. This movie is warm, fun, gorgeous and even a little sweet. And not a chainsaw in sight.