Considering his other film of 2018 was the abysmal and insensitive Death Wish remake, Eli Roth’s pivot to the child-oriented The House With A Clock In Its Walls (based on the young adult novel of the same name from Edward Gorey) may have taken quite a few people off guard. However, while I’ll admit the thought of him filming a horror story for kids had never crossed my mind until this announcement, it seemed like an area that Eli Roth may finally be able to shine in. Roth is well known for his over-the-top style of horror that can be interpreted either as enjoyable campy fun, or ridiculously stupid schlock depending on who you ask. Most of the time, I fall into the latter category but, just like a mother who keeps sending her deadbeat son checks in the mail, I always believed that Roth had a raw potential that was being wasted. The parts of Eli Roth’s style that I do enjoy always revolved around the obvious fun that he has on set, and the pure love he has for horror as a genre. What better place to explore that melodramatic dialogue and mess around with silly effects and scenarios than in a children’s horror film? Sure, he can’t be as bloody and insane as he is in all of his other movies, but the kitschy-ness of his style that usually comes across as messy or in poor taste would fit right in with a film all about an exuberant warlock and his larger-than-life house. This is what I wanted, what I hoped for, what I was really excited for. This is not what A House With a Clock In Its Walls gave me. Instead, what I got was a film that felt like the director himself had slept through it.
Set in 1955, the film centers around Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a young boy who moves to New Zebedee Michigan to stay with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) after the death of his parents. He meets his uncle’s good friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), and begins to notice strange things about the house he is staying in. Most notably, that there is an ominous ticking coming from within the walls. Lewis soon discovers that both Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are witches. Or rather, Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch, whereas Uncle Jonathan is a “boy witch”, more commonly known as a warlock. Being a child with boundless curiosity, Lewis naturally wants to be taught in the ways of magic and despite his initial resistance towards the idea, Jonathan agrees to help teach him. As he learns the secrets of magic he also learns more about the house that he has been staying in. Namely, that the infernal ticking noise in the walls comes from a clock placed there by the evil warlock Isaac Izzard (Kyle Maclachlan) who had lived in this house before Jonathan to bring about “the end time”.
The film frames itself around Lewis, and yet Owen Vaccaro’s performance tends to completely dampen any of the potentially enjoyable parts of the film. I’m sure a large part of this can be placed on the subpar script that does not seem to understand how children actually speak (hint: even in the 50s they didn’t sound so unbelievably formal), but it also has a lot to do with how incredible everyone around him is. Cate Blanchett and Jack Black have fabulous chemistry as two close friends who love each other dearly and — most importantly — platonically. They spend a good amount of the movie playfully ribbing each other in a way that is fun to watch if only because of their undeniable charisma. Where the script failed, the two of them still managed to flourish. On the opposite side of the same coin, Kyle MacLachlan seems to be having an absolute blast as the villain of our story. His exuberance and over-the-top wickedness harkens back to classic children’s horror that reminds me of the old “Goosebumps” television show. He looks as beautiful as ever in the flashbacks that we’re given, so much so that I can almost forgive the way they’re used to conveniently (read: lazily) spell out exposition and as we need it in context to the story that is unfolding. Almost.
But because of these wonderful actors doing what they do best, Vaccaro’s discomfort and all-around inability to bring anything more from his performance than a few tears and uncomfortably fake gasps of horror is even more obvious and only made me dread any time that we spent in Lewis’s presence.
I had expected the script to be a bit strange and uncomfortable, because I expected a campy and over-the-top film in every aspect. A script written like an old melodrama would be absolutely fine as long as the crazy camera work and special effects I’ve come to expect from Eli Roth films were delivered to me. The only place where any of this managed to shine was in the production design and execution of the house itself. Filled to the brim with interesting knick knacks, dusty books, and magical items, the house is a treasure trove of curios and mysteries. But it grows boring pretty fast after you realize that the world these items exist in is never going to be fleshed out. Why does the armchair act like a dog, and why in the world does the giant animate lion hedge in the garden shit dirty leaves, except to appeal to what I can only assume the out of touch adults behind this film thought children enjoyed about cinema? It grows more and more frustrating as the film goes on, to the point where I felt as though so many rules of the world were being broken, but we hadn’t actually been given any rules to begin with. Reminding us of all the fun idiosyncrasies of the house only goes so far into making the audience feel like they live in a fleshed out world, and it gets particularly bothersome when the film relies on that semi-interesting design like a crutch.
Almost every shot in this film is a simple eye-level wide shot. I can count the number of close-ups on one hand. Normally, this isn’t something that I nitpick. Not because it isn’t something that bothers me, but because I simply don’t notice. Here, though, I couldn’t help but notice the complete lack of vision within every frame of this film. The camera movements are anything but dynamic, and the suspense is truncated by the lack of even the simplest dramatic dolly forward or intimidating low angle. All of the things that I still appreciate and praise Roth for — sharp and fast camera movements, fun and interesting effects and blocking — are completely missing from this film, where they could have finally done him the most good.
At the end of the day, this film is a decent children’s film with Cate Blanchett leading the charge as the biggest purveyor of both childish fun and genuine emotion, and I would be lying if I said there weren’t parts of it I didn’t genuinely enjoy, but I left the theater feeling utterly frustrated at all of the wasted potential both narratively and technically. It may be time to admit that maybe what’s being wasted isn’t Eli Roth’s potential, but my time and money.