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‘House With Clock’ connects with young audience

September 29, 2018

I fear “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” may get lost in any number of mistaken categories: whether it’s lumped in with the endless “Harry Potter” wannabes, cast aside with the pile of failed young-adult books getting big-screen treatment, or rejected merely for its unorthodox (and extremely bland) title. 

Still, its biggest Achilles heel might be its director, Eli Roth, who was known for ushering in a genre of film called “torture porn” with the “Hostel” films. His subsequent, subpar efforts such as “The Green Inferno” and the lazy, ill-conceived “Death Wish” remake have continued to call into question his competence as a filmmaker.

But, just like Joe Dante (who cut his teeth on schlocky horror such as “The Howling” and “Piranha”) and Bob Clark (who started his career with “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things” and “Black Christmas”), Roth seemed to make a smooth transition to the world of family fare. 

Dante, of course, later gave us such classics as “Gremlins” and “Gremlins II,” and other nominally good youth-oriented films such as “Matinee,” “Explorers” and the criminally underseen “The Hole.” And Clark is perhaps right up there with Santa via his contribution of the perennial holiday classic “A Christmas Story.”

In “House with a Clock,” Roth demonstrates the same skill to connect with a younger audience, giving us a creepy, fun fantasy that could easily gain repeat viewings around Halloween as a go-to source of safe scares for families looking for a ghoulish good time.  

Based on a 1973 children’s book, the film takes place in 1955, when we meet 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (played by Owen Vacarro), a shy misfit recovering from the tragic loss of his parents and relocating to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (played by Jack Black). 

Sporting a kimono for his everyday outfit, Uncle Jonathan dwells in a mysterious old house that resembles Pee-Wee’s Playhouse decorated for Halloween. We learn Jonathan is a warlock and the house belonged to his former magic partner Isaac Izard (played by Kyle MacLachlan), who went off to war but then suffered dramatically from what he had witnessed overseas. 

Before he shuffled off this mortal coil, Izard planted a clock within his home’s walls that continues to tick and is the source of frustration for Jonathan.

The dear uncle is saved from insanity by “neighbor” Mrs. Zimmerman (played by Cate Blanchett), who seems begrudgingly indebted to him. 

Lewis, meanwhile, has trouble adjusting to life in his new school (the WWII aviator goggles adorning his head surely do not help), but he manages to befriend the popular Tarby (played by Sunny Suljic), who takes him under his wing, despite Lewis’ obvious eccentricities.   There is not much in order or originality in “House with a Clock’s” story (even if it predates the “Harry Potter” franchise), but considering the wonderfully acerbic banter between Black and Blanchett, the lavish set design around the mansion, and eerily playful (or playfully eerie) visuals, Roth demonstrates a flair for the material that could connect with the “Goosebumps” crowd. 

It’s a great first step for those who wish to get their feet wet in the horror waters and may turn out to be a new avenue for Roth to secure his future worth as a filmmaker. 

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.