September 21, 2018
The House With a Clock in Its Walls
The House With a Clock in Its Walls is not exactly time well spent
Starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp and Lorenza Izzo. Directed by Eli Roth. Opens Friday at GTA theatres. 104 minutes. PG
Eli Roth directing a children’s fantasy is a bit like the Marquis de Sade leading an Easter parade.
This is a filmmaker devoted to gore, so much so that his two Hostel movies led to the coining of the term “torture porn” for their visceral misery. Roth once vowed to always seek a “hard R” rating for his work, not being a man for half measures.
So it’s a curiosity, to say the least, to see him helming the PG-rated The House With a Clock in Its Walls, a film we might generously describe as horror-ish rather than horrific. It boasts delightful production design, including a house that may have been designed by the Addams Family, replete with sentient armchairs and flatulent topiary griffins. The movie, however, contains very few real scares and even less of a story.
Whatever was on Mr. Roth’s mind in choosing to adapt this 1973 story by author John Bellairs (Eric Kripke wrote the screenplay) may be entirely between the director, his studio (Universal) and their bankers. Franchise hopes of the Harry Potter kind may be afoot, since Bellairs’ story about an apprentice warlock ultimately became a series of 12 novels.
But this film is more of a tepid Goosebumps tale, not just because it stars that franchise’s Jack Black as bumbling warlock Jonathan Barnavelt. It’s strange enough to prompt a few childish shivers but not creepy enough to summon night terrors — although scenes of attacking hordes of leering jack-o’-lanterns may give the willies to very young children.
It’s 1955 and Barnavelt lives in fictional New Zebedee, Michigan, in a home that looks like a magician’s museum. He welcomes into his abode and under his dubious care his recently orphaned 10-year-old nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro). We can see that the timid Lewis is a little weird, because he insists on wearing bow ties and old-fashioned aviator goggles. He carries with him a dictionary in which he looks up words like “foreboding.”
Right next door is Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a bantering good witch who comes on like Mary Poppins’ more aggressive sister and who has an affinity for purple not seen since the heyday of Prince. Her umbrella can produce everything from intoxicating purple smoke to machine-gun bullets, as occasion demands.
“What wrong with weird?” she proclaims to Lewis. “It’s the nuts that make things interesting!”
This may be enlightened thinking but, alas, the “nuts” of this movie aren’t so fascinating. They include Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan as Isaac Izard, an evil wizard and former pal of Barnavelt’s, who is carelessly summoned from the grave in a childish stunt gone wrong.
MacLachlan looks less like a villain and more like Scrooge’s hapless partner Jacob Marley, who wandered in from a production of A Christmas Carol. But Isaac does have a very sleek spouse in Selena, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry (TV’s The Good Wife).
Isaac and Selena plan to use the titular magical clock inside Barnavelt’s home to stop time and rid the Earth of all humans, or something like that. Seems they’re environmentalists who have taken things to extremes.
Everyone hits their marks, with more efficiency than charm. The visuals are delightful to behold, especially the New Zebedee town square dressed up like Back to the Future, also set in 1955.
The town’s movie theatre, incidentally, is showing a feature called Space Man From Pluto, which a learned friend tells me was the original title of Back to the Future. It made me wish I’d been watching that picture instead of this one.
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