While the prospect of Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel, Grindhouse) as a kid’s movie director might feel like a strange concept to most, in reality, and as weird as it might sound, it looks like the master of gore and tasteless horror has managed to pull off the impossible in his brand new Amblin produced adventure, The House With A Clock in its Walls. Based on the first volume of a much loved children’s series of books written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, the film may not present a wholly new idea, but it still manages to offer a fun and engaging story full of playful hijinks and a rather impressive steampunk aesthetic.
After the death of both of his parents, ten year old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) goes to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a creaky old house which appears to have a mysterious ticking noise living inside its walls. Soon Lewis discovers that both his uncle Jonathan and his highly-strung neighbour Florence (Cate Blanchett) are in fact two powerful warlocks who seem more than happy to pass on their vast expertise onto their new charge. All hell breaks loose when Lewis accidentally uses dark magic to awaken a recently deceased sinister figure named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a powerful dark wizard who is hell-bent on destroying the world and everyone in it.
While some might be tempted to make the comparison between Roth’s film and recent favourites such as Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Brad Silberling, 2004), what really stands out in this particular offering is that it is far scarier and darker than the films it tries to emulate. Capitalising on its shambolic aesthetic, and a deftly handled dialogue, The House With A Clock in its Walls appears to be more than aware of its demographic, even if some parents might feel the need to consult the BBFC before committing themselves to this hugely enjoyable, brilliantly anarchic caper.
Jack Black offers a wonderfully ornate and fitting performance as the shambolic uncle Jonathan, a performance which benefits hugely from Black’s own brand of physical comedy and likeable japes. For her part, Cate Blanchett is as delightful as ever in a role which is a million miles away from her usual Oscar winning turns, but which she nevertheless still manages to make her own.
On the whole, and despite its less than perfect screenplay, The House With A Clock in its Walls still manages to offer something out of the ordinary in this fantastically well observed family film, which mixes horror and comedy with great results.