Film review: ‘THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Since the world-dominating success of the Harry Potter films, teen magic fantasies have been an El Dorado for film makers: guaranteed gold if the right approach can be found but as the likes of The Golden Compass and A Wrinkle in Time have shown, too often disastrous.

There were high hopes, however, for the cinema adaptation of John Bellair’s 1973 boy wizard novel The House with A Clock in Its Walls. The result is certainly more watchable than a turkey like City of Bones but well short of the Potter films.

Weirdly and somewhat disturbingly, this film, which is aimed at a younger audience, has been directed by Eli Roth, who, through his Hostel films, has been credited with inventing the torture porn movie genre as well as wistfully recalling that lost 70’s cinema staple, the cannibal film with his movie Green Inferno. Remarkably, this is a family-friendly outing with no one being mutilated or eaten.

House stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, the requisite sensitive, maladjusted child on the verge of adolescence. Having lost his parents in a car accident, he moves in with his strange and surprisingly irresponsible uncle Jonathon (Jack Black) and Jonathon’s quirky platonic female friend Florence (Cate Blanchett). When Owen discovers his oddball uncle is in fact a warlock he’s keen to learn the magical arts. Meddling with forbidden magic, however, Owen unleashes destructive supernatural forces including a dark Wizard, Isaac Izzard (Kyle McLachlan) who is hell-bent on destroying Uncle Jonathon.

This film’s limited setting – often shot within a couple of rooms of Jonathon’s old house – deprives it of the epic scope and wonder of the Potter movies. It also lacks their wit and maturity as it clumsily attempts to weld a Disneyesque kid-friendly fantasy to a supernatural horror story. The film improves as it embraces darker supernatural elements but never quite transforms into something entirely satisfying. Few scenes are visually remarkable and some of the effects such as an attack by angry, enchanted Jack-O’-lanterns look a bit naff.

Jack Black sets the film’s tone with a typical bumbling irresponsible goofball performance. He’s tolerable as a typically quirky Disney character but the film also needed someone with the magisterial quality that Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon and the wonderful British cast brought to the Potter series. Cate Blanchett should have captured those qualities but her prim school ma’am character is underdeveloped and rarely produces the dignity and feistiness of a character like Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall. Youngster Vaccaro is sympathetic as the confused nerdy child dealing with a threatening new world but not particularly engaging.

The House with a Clock in It’s Walls will probably tide-over eager fans of the magical youngster genre for now but is unlikely to prove an enduring favourite.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Fantasy.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Eli Roth.

Release date: 20th Sep 2018.

Running time: 105 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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