By: Felix Felicis (Four Beers) –
This movie must be odd because I literally could not even with it. The House With A Clock In Its Walls almost defies description and, much like the unfortunate yearbook picture of the time I accidentally got bangs in high school, (yes, I’m *still* talking about it) I have no good explanation for what happened. This wasn’t a bad movie but it wasn’t a great movie, either. It… It bottles the mind trying to understand it. The closest I can come is comparing House With A Clock to an edible arrangement composed mostly of Metamucil caramel chews with a few oversized LSD gummy bears mixed in (largely inoffensive with a batshit crazy kicker at the end that will leave you baffled, slightly disturbed and, weirdly, SUPER FUCKING CREEPED OUT). But not necessarily in a fun way? Here we go Eli Roth. Time to get elbow-deep in whatever light fantastic you were tripping when you came up with this, ya porcelain doll-lovin’, Hitchcockian-insert-yourself-into-ya-own-movie mu’fucker.
House With A Clock (fuck typing that shit out fully every time, even money it’s just House by the end of the review) is adapted from the 1973 John Bellair’s children’s book by the same name that, cover-to-cover, barely cracks 200 pages. I know, because I read it in an hour the night before I went to go screen the movie. This kids’ thriller, set in 1955, follows Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, who’s claim to fame thus far is credits in BOTH Daddy’s Home *and* Daddy’s Home 2… It gets better, kid… Maybe) as he goes to live with his mysterious and absurdly eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black at his Jack Blackiest) paired with an equally eccentric neighbor-friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett at her Cate Blanchett-iest) after his parents tragically die in a car crash. Not gonna lie, the aviator goggles on this kid and devastating backstory are giving me weird flashes of Up deja vu (except less emotionally relevant and absolutely zero Dug).
Fast forward fifty endless minutes later, and we have a living house that’s kind of like a cross between Beauty and the Beasts’ enchanted manor (complete with wingtip-chair-dog-friend) and the hotel from The Shining (disturbing stained-glass mural that shifts vignettes, an incontinent topiary griffin, and basement full of possessed dolls), a desperate Uncle Jonathan who happens to be a warlock and nonplussed Florence (who happens to be a witch) searching the house for a ticking, supernatural doomsday clock built by the previous, now kind of(?) dead warlock hell-bent on wiping humanity off the map temporally, and a ragingly nerdy, unpopular Lewis desperate to hold onto the only friend he’s barely made at school since moving to town while being taught the ways of magic by his uncle. So Lewis does what anyone would and raises the dead (but just like a LITTLE BIT) to impress his jerkwad of a bro, setting in motion a catastrophic series of events that somehow culminates in a filibuster finale that kind of has to be seen to be believed (and I’m definitely NOT trying to trick you into watching this so I’m not the only one with the memory of what they did-temporarily-to Jack Black in that finale…).
I’m pretty sure Jack Black IS an actual, real-life warlock because he’s managed to semi-masterfully rebrand himself by inches over the last decade from a stoner/slacker standard character into the Dwayne Johnson of family-friendly movie fare (bankable with a capital “B”). Here in House With A Clock, Jack Black is goofy, relatable, and moderately charming (given the semi-stale dialogue he had to work with) as Uncle Jonathan and he carries a large part of the first two-thirds of the film on the twinkle in his eye alone (given a solid assist from the incomparable Cate Blanchett whose Florence pops up now and then for some light banter and a pumpkin massacre or two).
Whatever went awry in this flick, and some shit done gone AWRY, I’ll give Eli Roth some credit for doing an abrupt pivot from the Hostel, torture porn franchise genre into children’s thrillers. It largely, mostly, kind of(?) works and I’m sure Roth’s bugnuts brainpan had a fair amount to do with it. Kudos where kudos are due, the source material was BORING AS ALL FUCKING GET OUT HOLY SHIT IT WAS A THREADBARE NARRATIVE WITH VAGUE, HALF-FORMED IDEAS THAT WENT NOWHERE FAST. The parts of this movie that I enjoyed the most were the bits that were filled in with entirely new material (the first two-thirds of House follow the book pretty faithfully barring a slight tweak or two and, as a result, almost put me into a bland af coma so, basically, I’m talking about the last third of the film).
The Boss Battle Finale Showdown is where this flick swings for the goddamn fences like Babe Ruth trying to ANNIHILATE a pinata at a children’s birthday party. House largely succeeds here and gets a few SOLID hits of creepy in while toeing the PG-line like a pro… And then things get REALLY FUCKING WEIRD. I’m talking psychedelic hits-of-acid-is-this-real-life, Daniel-After-Dentist weird. Not everything Roth brought to the table worked out, though. *cough* OH MY GOD WHY WOULD YOU REVERSE-DEADPOOL-BABY-BODY-THAT-PEES-WITH-HUMAN-MAN-HEAD JACK BLACK?! WHY FOR THE LOVE OF CTHULHU WHYYYYYYY?!?! AND OH GOD THAT HILLBILLY DEMON IS-I CAN’T-OH FUCK WHY DID IT LICK SOME DUDE’S HAND TO SEAL HIS-GAG-SATANTIC BARGAIN-UGHHHHH *cough* But, very probable future therapy visits for those haunting images aside, I’ll take a children’s thriller that tries to push the boundaries of the genre rather than one sitting complacently in the middle of it 10/10 times.
House With A Clock falls into some fairly obvious PG-genre-pitfalls as it doesn’t fully trust its audience to pick up on nuanced acting and instead goes for a hammy, over-the-top approach that feels a bit patronizingly disingenuous at times to its target demographic (or any demographic, really). If the goal was a kid-friendly Cabin In The Woods humor-with-horror mashup then House didn’t quite get there, falling far short of the goal like a line-backing Frankenstein(‘s monster) who forgot to tie his feet on that morning. The dialogue in this flick didn’t do House With A Clock any favors (the stilted banter between Jonathan and Florence- an element lifted directly from the book- left a slightly stale and uneven undercurrent to their otherwise stellar character chemistry) as it stayed firmly grounded in a paint-by-the-numbers, routine approach even OG Paintmaster Bob Ross would’ve taken a hard pass on, designed to cure even the most sleep-deprived insomniac. Which was similarly less-than-enhanced by a lackluster source narrative. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it limitless times, even if it’s a movie meant for children that doesn’t mean you can pander to the lowest common denominator of quality and get away with it because your audience may not know any better… yet.
This may be the first time I’ve ever said this but The House With A Clock In It’s Walls, while reducing the need for marketing by having everything you need to know about this movie RIGHT THERE in the title, could have used a little more action and a little less conversation please. And by that I mean a little less of a faithful adaptation to the source narrative (the novel). While the fifties period setting was admittedly cool, the characters having been built from a thin framework didn’t leave them much more than one dimension to stand on. There’s less of a character arc and more of a character flatline happening to the cast here. It’s taken me THREE BEERS to even get to the mustache-twirling evil warlock played by an oddly muted Isaac Izard (aka Kyle MacLachlan – and this man has a Twin Peaks pedigree to draw upon! How? How do you smother that?!). Apparently pretty thoroughly by having little-to-no background or foundation laid for Jonathan and Isaac’s pre-existing friendship, Isaac’s life before the war, and/or his descent into madness after his hillbilly demon pact (again, ew). Isaac is evil because we need a villain and Lewis, Jonathan, and Florence are there to stop him because we need heroes.
A solid majority of the cognitive dissonance that House With A Clock left me with after the credits rolled could be due, in large part, to its disjointed genre mashup leading to a distinct lack of cross-demographic appeal. It may well be that the very creativity and unusual approach brought to the table by Roth didn’t fully graft itself onto the host narrative. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the weirdly genocidal man-goes-to-WWII-and-makes-a-pact-with-a-demon-to-wipe-out-humanity isn’t a suuuuper good look on a children’s film… There’s also the wild series of left turns into way-darker-and-more-distubingville than even my grown ass expected, or was prepared to deal with, during that finale. Roth got a SERIOUS amount of bang out of that PG buck, but House might’ve benefited from a defter creative touch. Weirdly childish *apples (*topiary griffin with leaf-and-branch diarrhea) meet disconcertingly disturbing *oranges (*basement full of possessed dolls that want to eat your face).
If you couldn’t tell by now, House With A Clock had a dealer’s choice melange of disparate elements that weighed down an otherwise fairly promising dip into the family-friendly-thriller pond. Kind of like if you tied an anvil to Dug and dropped him down the Laurentian Abyss. Sure, House struggled a bit and managed to stay afloat for awhile, but you know this movie will eventually (much like Anvil Dug) sink into the unknown, never to be seen again.
The backloaded action, awkward pacing, stilted dialogue (in addition to a weirdly-jammed-in-there Halloween nod – there are murderous pumpkins who have come to spill some GUTS… mostly their own) and audience whiplash acceleration from zero-to-AH-TOO-FAR-TOO-FUCKING-FAR end up sending this benignly entertaining “killer” (kid-thriller? enh we’ll workshop it) riding off into a generic sunset.
From trailer to final credits, House With A Clock In Its Walls raises expectations and plunges the reality of its final product into a steep, slightly disconcerting, decline… Before finally rolling to a stop and bumping the edges of deflated expectations like a roller-coaster that once had some serious potential before major genre neglect turned it into a mostly forgettable (barring a nightmare or two) foray into adolescent thrillers.
TLDR: The juice ultimately isn’t worth the box office squeeze on this one, campers. You’re better off waiting for Goosebumps 2 due out this October.
… Or just ditch the kids at Chuck ‘E’ Cheese (they’ll be FINE) and go see A Simple Favor. Holy SHIT that movie is a goddamn dark delight and refreshing breath of labyrinthine machinations pickled in gin and served icy hot. The ladies who lunch ain’t got NOTHIN’ on Kendrick and Lively.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone eats a cookie or looks for THE clock.
Take a Drink: for every definition or example of nerdery Lewis displays.
Take a Sip: for each “insult” Jonathan and Florence sling at one another.
Take a Drink: anytime Ghost Mom pops up or someone says the word “indomitable”.
Do a Shot: every time the stained-glass mural changes.
Shotgun Your Beer: REVERSE. DEADPOOL. BABY. JACK BLACK. Trust me, you’re gonna need to forget that.