The House With A Clock In Its Walls (2018)

The House With A Clock In Its Walls first published by Little White Lies

Eli Roth has made his name making puerile films for adults – the sick Evil Dead riffing of his debut Cabin Fever (2002), the touristic torture porn of Hostel (2005) and its sequel, the cannibalising of Italian anthropological schlock in The Green Inferno, the iffy remakes Knock Knock (2015) and Death Wish (2018). Now, with his latest, Roth reverses time, not just going back to the 1950s, but essaying adult genre for kids. 

Adapted (by Eric Kripke) from John Bellairs’ 1973 novel,  The House With A Clock In Its Walls is both a comic coming-of-age fantasy and an effects-heavy, Harry Potter-fied version of horror, including a haunted house, graveyard necromancy, “creepy” dolls, monstrous topiary, an ancient demon, aggressive jack o’ lanterns and even the use of axes and chainsaws. In other words, this may be a children’s film, but it is also, like Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad (1987), Gil Kenan’s Monster House (2006) and Joe Dante’s The Hole (2009), a gateway to harder stuff.  

After his parents are killed in a car accident, 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moves into the gothic old house of his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Dressed in a kimono, playing the sax and permissive to a fault, Jonathan is a man out of step with his times – hip in a decade where almost everyone was a square. Likewise his neighbour and best friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is an eccentric – educated, independent, and sharing not just her free spirit but her surname with Bob Dylan (né Zimmerman). Meanwhile, with his goggles, his disinterest in sport and his love of words, Lewis is ‘weird’ himself – a nerd of the kind ostracised in the Fifties, but entirely normalised in today’s Age of Geek™. These three misfits, who have all lost their traditional families, form a new unconventional family together – and their outsider status is marked by their practice of magic, with Lewis playing sorceror’s apprentice to Jonathon’s warlock and Florence’s witch.

If these three seem ahead of their times, their adversaries – the late owner of the house Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry) – want to turn the clocks back, using an infernal timepiece concealed within the house to reset the world to an era before there were any humans. Their wicked plot is a kind of retroactive abortion: an extreme measure to go back to the innocent, Edenic state when no bad things have happened yet, but which also involves the apocalyptic end of everyone. Of course Lewis and Florence too want to return to the loved ones that they have lost – but the film, though set in a carefully reconstructed mid-twentieth-century and also featuring flashbacks to the Second World War and earlier, places careful limits on its own nostalgic urges, and finds ways for Jonathan, Florence and Lewis in the end to “say goodbye” to their past and move on to construct a new shared future. Along the way, there are plenty of pooh jokes to remind us that childhood never quite vanishes – and Black and Blanchett make for magical sparring partners. 

© Anton Bitel