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Non-Review Review: The House With a Clock in Its Walls

There is something quite charmingly old-fashioned about The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which often feels like a nostalgic paean to the kind of children’s films that they simple do not make any longer.

Director Eli Roth might feel like a strange fit for the film, given his filmography to this point is effectively a whistle-stop tour of twenty-first century exploitation cinema; the director made his name with the Hostel films, but has also worked on movies like Cabin Fever, Knock Knock and the recent Death Wish remake. It seems strange that Eli Roth would be tapped to direct a family-friendly adaptation of a forty-five year old novel.

Stars in their eyes.

Then again, there is a long history of niche and exploitation filmmakers serving as unlikely storytellers of child-friendly narratives. Robert Rodriguez is perhaps best known for his work on Desperado or From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, but he is also responsible for the Spy Kids franchise. Older film fans will recognise George Miller for his work on the Mad Max franchise, while younger audience members will forever associate him with Happy Feet. There is a clear precedent here.

More than that, there’s perhaps a logic at play in these sorts of transitions. At its best, and perhaps given the most charitable reading, Roth’s filmography suggests the demented glee of a teenager bringing his feverish imaginings to life. There is a clear sense of nostalgia and yearning in Roth’s work, even beyond straight-up remakes like The Green Inferno. Indeed, that nostalgia seems perfectly suited to The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which is just a shade darker and weirder than a lot of modern children’s films, but in keeping with the tone of the film’s of Roth’s childhood.

Clocking in.

To be clear, there are a number of issues with The House With a Clock In Its Walls. It is unlikely to become a generational classic in the style of the films that it is emulating, unlikely to achieve that lofty status as a children’s film passed down with love and excitement from one generation to the next. It isn’t as smart or insightful as audiences expect the best of contemporary children’s entertainment to be, with relatively few big ideas for families to chew over in the car on the way home. Then again, there’s no indication that Roth wants that of this film.

More seriously, The House With a Clock In Its Walls does suffer from some pacing issues. These seem to be largely down to adaptational issues with exposition adapted from John Bellairs and Edward Gorey’s original classic children’s novel. Over the course of the film, there are several extended sequences of characters narrating past events in order to bring other characters (and the audience) up to speed. These sequences are overlaid with black and white footage, but the approach works better in prose than they do on screen.

Playing its cards right.

That said, the actors providing the exposition are charming, and the black and white footage has a delightful rustic pulpy old-school vibe to it that evokes stylised silent horror films. However, these repeated interruptions slow down the forward momentum of the narrative. Notably, The House With a Clock In Its Walls runs almost entirely on atmosphere for at least its first hour. This is about twenty to thirty minutes too many for an adventure film like this. The primary antagonist is introduced as a concept half-an-hour before he finally appears to menace the characters.

Beyond these plotting and pacing issues, The House With a Clock In Its Walls also leans a little too heavily into bodily function humour. There are far too many “poop, vomit, and urine” jokes that are played out with a slightly magical twist. The House With a Clock In Its Walls seems to assume that this lends the jokes some novelty – isn’t it hilarious when a garden sculpture poops? how about when a baby with an adult head pees? what if magic pumpkins were to vomit? – but these gags seems a little too self-indulgent.

Going through a rough patch.

However, in spite of these issues, The House With a Clock In Its Walls has an endearing pulpy old school eighties vibe. The Amblin logo at the start of the film feels like a statement of purpose as much as a production credit. Roth repeatedly evokes older children’s films like The Goonies or E.T. in terms of his storytelling, devoting considerable energy to cultivating an air of mystery and awe about the eponymous structure.

The use of practical where possible contributes to this sense of tangible wonder. The decision to place many of the computer-generated effects in the background of shots for the first ninety minutes or so is also canny, ensuring that those shots that would be impossible to do physically feel at least grounded within a physical space. For all that The House With a Clock In Its Walls has an over-extended introductory act, the film makes the house a place that is intriguing enough to hold the audience’s attention during these early sequences.

My dear, you look wand-erful tonight.

The climax is still a little too computer-generated-effects-driven for its own good, descending into the sort of green-screen anarchy that is expected of modern live-action children’s films. Nevertheless, the film always feels slightly more tangible than most contemporary children’s fare, largely down to the work of director Eli Roth and production designer Jon Hutman and even costumer Marlene Stewart. It feels like somebody had tasked Tim Burton with making an Amblin film in the early nineties, somewhere between Edward Scissorhands and Mars Attacks.

On that note, special mention should be made of the work of composer (and frequent Roth collaborator) Nathan Barr, who populates the film’s soundtrack with eerie theremins and retro fifties elements that serve to ground the film in a particular genre. The House With a Clock In Its Walls is set in the mid-fifties, but not the real fifties. Even the children’s book upon which the film is based was written in the seventies, meaning that The House With a Clock In Its Walls plays against the backdrop of the popular memories of the fifties.

In the mouth of madness.

In keeping with the general throwback eighties aesthetic of The House With the Clock In the Walls, the film is saturated with the sort of fifties nostalgia that informed eighties films like Back to the Future or even Blue Velvet. In particular, the film has a strong preoccupation with the trauma that the Second World War inflicted upon the American psyche, and the atomic anxiety that flowed from the end of that conflict.

The House With a Clock In Its Walls is a story about an unconventional family literally living within a “doomsday clock” designed by a man who was changed by his experiences during the war. The fifties aesthetic is only heightened by the casting of Kyle Maclachlan as the inventor of the eponymous clock, an actor perhaps best known as an eighties embodiment of wholesome fifties Americana for director David Lynch. Asked what they’ll do when the clock reaches zero, one character makes the atomic anxiety more explicit, “We’ll just hide in the basement. Like everybody else.”

The fruits of their labour.

The House With a Clock In Its Walls benefits from a charming ensemble. The film lacks the sort of stand-out revelatory one-in-a-million star-making child-performance that tends to elevate the best of these movies; think of how lucky It got with its cast of child actors. Then again, given how hard acting is and the demands made of child performers, it seems unreasonable to fault the film for lacking a break-out performance from its childish lead.

However, the adult cast bring a lot to The House With a Clock In Its Walls. Jack Black brings the sort of manic energy and off-kilter weirdness that makes him a perfect fit for both mass-market kids films and Richard Linklater movies. Black is game for anything that the film can throw at him, delivering an impish and playful performance. The film also scores points for the casting of Cate Blanchett as a fifties suburban witch who dresses entirely in purple, which seems like a selling point of itself.

Any witch way but loose.

The House With a Clock In Its Walls is an endearing and charming children’s entertainment throwback, the kind of kid’s film that they rarely make any more.

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2 Responses

  1. Great review. I am really looking forward to seeing this finally. Cate Blanchett is a big draw for me. I sense that it has a charm and I will enjoy it despite its problems.

  2. Interestingly, none of the exposition shown in the film is mentioned in the book.

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