Cinematic Releases: The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018) - Reviewed

The idea of Eli Roth making a family film is a curious one. He is of course known for his bloody horror movies like Cabin Fever and the Hostel franchise. I have no clue what made anyone think he would be the right choice to direct the YA fantasy adaptation The House with a Clock in its Walls, but they were absolutely correct. It is a really fun, occasionally magical, adventure that deals with real issues and never panders. Roth has translated his sensibilities in a way that is family friendly without ever being cute and cuddly. Though it has been rated PG, this is not Paddington. It gets kind of dark. There are moments here that could be pretty scary for younger viewers.

The story (based on the 1973 novel by John Bellairs, the first in a twelve book series) takes place in 1955 in the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan. Ten year-old Lewis has come there to stay with his Uncle Jonathan after the death of his parents. The house of the title is the creepy and amazing home Jonathan lives in. It turns out to be a literally magical place containing big secrets. This is all set up with a minimum of exposition and a good use of atmosphere. 

The House with a Clock in its Walls successfully juggles wonder and menace throughout its entire running time. There is a decent amount of humor, most of it coming from Jack Black, very much in his element as the wacky uncle. However, Roth also is able to build up a surprisingly effective sense of dread. Well, PG appropriate dread. Despite all the silliness, there is a strong feeling bad things could happen. The stakes are believably high. It is a nice mixture of family adventure and fantasy action sprinkled with concepts of grief and family it actually addresses, instead of just using them as plot devices.

In addition to Jack Black, who seems like he is having a great time, Cate Blanchett is also delightful as his next door neighbor/best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman. Black has tried to stretch a bit in recent years with more serious roles. Here he adds back some of the manic energy that initially made him popular. It is a perfect fit for the character. Blanchett can lend gravity to even the weirdest lines, helping to bring emotion into this story. They have very good chemistry together, making it feel like Lewis is coming into a world, and a relationship, that already has an established rhythm to it.

The House with a Clock in its Walls is not intriguing enough in its world building to match up to the best YA fantasy movies. It has likable characters, an engaging story, some cool effects and exciting action, but the mythology is not especially compelling. Though I had a lot of fun watching it, I am not sure I am interested enough in this universe to want to see any more of the books get adapted. But that is a minor complaint considering how good this movie is. It is funny and intense in all the right spots and shows that Eli Roth is capable of crafting an entertaining kid friendly adventure. Albeit one that may give some kids a sleepless night or two.

--Ben Pivos