The House with a Clock in its Walls Review: The Return of Scary Kids Movies
The House with a Clock in its Walls Review: Director Eli Roth brings his horror pedigree to a kids’ movie, reminding us of what we lost.
In a lot of ways, The House with a Clock in its Walls, based on the 1973 YA novel by John Bellairs, is a throwback film. It is a movie for kids that stands out among other kids movies because it isn’t afraid to treat the kids as young adults. It’s arguably a bit out of its time, but hopefully, it will be the start of a retro trend.
If you look at it coldly and dispassionately, big-budget movies as a whole are better now than they were in the 80s and 90s. That’s not to say that there weren’t countless classics from that decade that still hold up, but for every Die Hard there was a Howard the Duck or a Super Mario Bros. Nostalgia can pick up some of the slack, but trust me, Over the Top is not as good as you remember.
Sure, there is a lot of garbage these days, but overall the quality of big releases has improved – with one possible genre excluded: kids’ movies.
At the risk of contradicting what I just said and simultaneously taking another step toward yelling at kids to get off my lawn, the approach to kids movies now was much stronger in the 80s and early 90s. That’s doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality, but the movies themselves were in some ways much deeper than they are now.
Kids’ movies in the 80s and 90s weren’t afraid to scare the crap out of their audiences or kill off a beloved character. There’s a generation of adults that still have deep feelings about the 1986 animated Transformers movie. And sure, you can cynically look at that film and say the decision to murder several extremely popular characters was driven by the desire to introduce new toys to sell, but it’s tough to imagine a modern property aimed at a similar age group that would introduce the concept of genocide. Many a’ pearl would be clutched as the complaints poured in. And that’s too bad.
Artax dying in the Swamp of Sadness in Neverending Story was traumatic, and it was meant to be. It left an impression on young audiences and even taught them lessons about loss while still in a safe space. We’ve lost some of that over the years, to our detriment. The House with a Clock in its Wall doesn’t go that far – no beloved pets are murdered – but it is more in that vein than most current kids’ movies, and that’s a very good thing.
Directed by Eli Roth, whose torture-porn heavy filmography reads like evidence in his future homicide trial, The House that etc., etc. takes a somewhat obscure book and adds weight to it. Set in 1955 in the small town of New Zebedee, Michigan, the story begins on a very down note. 10-year old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his mysterious uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) following the sudden death of his parents. But when he arrives at his new home, he immediately discovers that it’s anything but normal. Moving pictures adorn the walls, and clocks litter every corner of the house. It is a decidedly haunted-like house, and after a few frightening nights, Lewis is ready to run away and leave behind the uncle he knows nothing about.
The House changes gears several times, and rather than play out a familiar and annoying game of trying to figure out exactly what’s going on, his uncle just tells him. Jonathan is a warlock with good intentions but only moderate skills, and the house – which belonged to his deceased partner Isaac (Kyle MacLachlan) is hiding a dark secret. So Lewis’s new home is sort of a cross between Hogwarts and the house in Poltergeist.
With the help of Jonathan’s best friend and neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) – a powerful witch who lost her magic but not her knowledge – Lewis sets out to train in the mystic arts. Things go well enough, but in an effort to win a friend at school Lewis goes to extreme measures to prove himself, setting off a chain reaction that could lead to disaster.
From the start, you can immediately see why Vaccaro was cast. As Lewis, he carries the sadness of his parents’ death with him, without it being his defining characteristic. He is a lonely boy, but he’s also willing to put that aside to find happiness. It’s endearing and a little heart-breaking. Black is also well suited for the role as Jonathan, a good person who’s probably not suited to raising a child alone. He’s the fun uncle that kids want to hang out with, but only because you know you can go home to a more structured environment.
Meanwhile, Blanchett continues to be amazing. If you don’t like Cate Blanchett, you may be a little dead inside. Plus, her character – like Lewis – is drenched in tragedy but manages to not be completely defined by it. She’s funny and radiates depth. Her backstory is only hinted at quickly, but it’s enough to tell you everything you need to know, and it’s powerful. She and Black also have a solid rapport, filled with friendly insults, but grounded in mutual respect. It’s also nice to see a rare male-female relationship that isn’t immediately romantic.
All three together work well as a unit and avoid many of the predictable pitfalls that can be generated by this type of ad hoc family-like unit. It never hangs up on annoying tropes, and it also remains grounded in its own logic. Most of all, it’s scary in the way that older movies used to be scary – not in the sense of jump scares and monsters, but in the sense that there’s a real feeling of loss and the stakes are high. To give you an example without spoiling anything, Lewis has conversations with his dead mother that are important and truly sad. It’s emotionally scary.
The first thing you’ll see when the film begins is the Amblin logo, and that’s perfectly fitting. Like many of the best Amblin movies of the 80s that were geared for kids, The House doesn’t pull its punches but gives a story that everyone of all ages will enjoy.
Roth may seem like an unusual choice for a film that is ultimately about family and is made for families, but he seems happy to defy the current kids’ films convention. And in this case, that’s a very good thing.
The House with a Clock in its Walls Review Conclusion
The House with a Clock in its Walls is a family film that doesn’t act quite like a family film. It has depth and a crowd-pleasing story of good vs evil, wrapped up by solid performances. It respects its audiences, and hopefully, the audiences will respect it back.
The House with a Clock in its Wall is rated PG with a running time of 104 minutes.