The House with a Clock in Its Walls

 

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Snappy dialogue and terrific effects enliven Hollywood’s latest dip into the world of precocious children and wizardry, along with stellar turns from Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.

 

House with a Clock in Its Walls, The

 

J.K. Rowling has a lot to answer for. But then so has R.L. Stine, Roald Dahl and, for that matter, the brothers Grimm. As the adolescent appetite for spells and all things wizardly grows exponentially, here comes Amblin Entertainment's adaptation of John Bellairs' 1973 mystery novel for ‘Young Readers.’ Personally, I found the film scarier than The Nun, and a lot funnier. The director Eli Roth and his production designer Jon Hutman have packed the screen with creepy objets d'art, from innumerable clocks and blank-eyed dolls to Victorian instruments of indeterminate purpose. There’s also the weightier matter of Armageddon, and the erasure of all human history engineered by an evil warlock freshly resurrected from the grave. Can kids really take this stuff? Well, those raised on violent video games will no doubt enjoy the thrill and, of course, Voldemort was no Wizard of Oz. But then this is directed by Eli Roth who, much as he did for torture porn with Hostel (2005), here puts the ‘chil(l)’ into children’s cinema.

 

Like many a young protagonist in the movies, ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is both an orphan and preternaturally precocious. Indeed, one of the first things out of his mouth is the word “pulchritudinous”. The year is 1955 and following the death of his parents in a car accident, Lewis goes to stay with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), the “black swan” of the family (whose grasp of the English language is less impressive than his nephew’s). “So, we’ll be a flock of swans, then,” he says. “A bevy,” Lewis corrects him. Uncle Jonathan is much better with spells, though, being a warlock living in a house stuffed with lively inanimate objects, including a cuddly, anthropomorphic armchair. However, even better at magic than Uncle Jonathan is his best friend and neighbour, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), with whom he shares a love-hate relationship. “We’re not kissy-faced,” she tells Lewis. “No, you’re platonic,” the boy observes. She calls Jonathan “Gorilla Groin,” he barks back, “I’d give you a nasty look, but you’ve already got one.” They obviously adore each other and, perhaps surprisingly, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett generate enormous comic chemistry. There are also yummy chocolate chip cookies for supper and the house has no rules – bar one. Lewis is not permitted to open a secret cabinet…

 

Like all superior films aimed at children, The House with a Clock in Its Walls resonates on two different levels. While the young-at-heart can chortle with glee at Jonathan’s incontinent gryphon, their guardians will observe a darker current running beneath. The real evil in the film is brought about not by the chicanery of the special effects department, but by the horrors of the Second World War, as witnessed by Jonathan’s old colleague and rival, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Florence herself lost a daughter in the Holocaust, but no child would catch the reference. That area of human history is too dark for the squeamish – the horrors in The House with a Clock in Its Walls are for the most part pure fantasy, and often very funny with it.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Vanessa Anne Williams, Braxton Bjerken, Eli Roth (as the indomitable Comrade Ivan).

 

Dir Eli Roth, Pro Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt and Eric Kripke, Screenplay Eric Kripke, Ph Rogier Stoffers, Pro Des Jon Hutman, Ed Fred Raskin, Music Nathan Barr, Costumes Marlene Stewart.

 

Amblin Entertainment/Reliance Entertainment/Mythology Entertainment/Amblin Partners- Entertainment One.

104 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 21 September 2018. Cert. 12A.