The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018)
Written by Eric Kripke
Directed by Eli Roth
The name Eli Roth is typically associated with, what I consider, mediocre horror films. He made Cabin Fever, the first two Hostel movies, among others. I’ve never clicked with the style and tone Roth goes for in his films, they feel like horror movies intent on undercutting any potential fear or creepiness, almost parodies of horror movies. I was a bit surprised when this was announced, an adaptation of a children’s fantasy novel written by John Bellairs in the 1970s. I feel like Roth hasn’t found his niche in the type of films he makes typically so I thought this could be a chance for him to make something I’d enjoy.
The House with a Clock in the Walls is the story of Lewis Barnavelt, an orphan sent to live with his uncle, Jonathan. When Lewis arrives at his uncle’s large house, he finds the place is soaked in magic and enchantment with moving stained glass windows, a living winged lion shrub, and a recliner that wants to be a house pet. There’s also a mystery inside the walls which Jonathan is searching for and aided by his neighbor Florence Zimmerman. Lewis learns the two are practicing sorcerors and that a deceased wizard put a spell on the house with a clock ticking down to some unknown and likely grim conclusion.
The best parts of the movie are when the villains arrive, and we finally have some forward-moving plot momentum. Before that point, and sadly as the film plods into its third act, events move very slowly and without any stakes being built, emotional or plot. There’s an unspoken vibe of “Hey, isn’t all this magic stuff quirky and fantastic?” but we aren’t shown anything that hasn’t been done better in Harry Potter. Harry Potter is what this film is trying to capitalize on and probably the only reason it got made. After the success of that franchise, the search was on by studio executives to mimic the formula for their profit, once again misunderstanding why audiences flocked to a specific film. It’s rarely because of a combination of elements but rather the overall themes and characters.
I was shocked at the dialogue Jack Black and Kate Winslett were given in this movie. The conceit is that they are deeply devoted friends, but they have a penchant for ribbing each other with insults at every turn. I can’t pin down exactly what was wrong with this, but the insults didn’t feel honest, they felt like lines a screenwriter crafted that he thought were amusing. It also pulled me out of the movie when in the middle of serious events we’d get these asinine exchanges that I just wanted to stop as soon as they started. It’s sad to see Kate Winslett in something like Carol and then given such poor material in House.
The star of the movie is young Owen Vaccaro, who is your typical awkward kid in a film, never really feeling believable. I have reason to believe this is more due to Roth’s directing because Sunny Suljic plays one of Lewis’ classmates and that young man has given great performances in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Mid90s. So, Vaccaro’s stiffness could be attributed to Roth, not knowing how to direct children on top of how to make a film with this sort of attempted family-friendly tone. I don’t want to disparage Vaccaro for that reason, but it was tough to engage in the movie with him as our entry point.
I think this source material in the hands of a different director could have been great. Moreover, it wouldn’t have to be a traditional kid-friendly filmmaker. For example, Guillermo Del Toro would have done amazing things with this story when I think about how he’s directed children in a fantasy story (see Pan’s Labyrinth). Roth just has never proven himself competent with creating a cohesive tone through his movies, always seeming to pivot to appear different. The House with a Clock in the Walls was a movie I wanted to like but it just ultimately didn’t know what it wanted to be and as a result, ends up being a movie I couldn’t imagine becoming anyone’s favorite.