You know what a lot of kids movies lack these days (I ask while waving my cane in the air at a cloud)? Charm. There’s some amazing stuff going on for sure, but that certain “charming” characteristic is often missing. Maybe it’s because children’s films are all chasing after Pixar’s perfect blend of adult nostalgia and childhood wonder, but charm is often missing.
I did not expect to find that charm from Eli Roth. The man is better known for the exact opposite of charm. If charm and one of his films touched it would destroy the universe. Yet, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is charming in its own wonderful way. One part horror movie, one part coming of age, and one part Harry Potter, the film may not break any boundaries, but it is uniquely charming.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Director: Eli Roth
Release Date: September 21, 2018
The House with a Clock in Its Walls isn’t charming in a cute and cuddly traditional sense like the wonderful Paddington movies are, but in a quirky, funny, and sometimes legit scary sense that stands out. Based on the book of the same name the film finds Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) sent off to live with his eccentric uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), after his parents die. It’s straight out of every ghost story cliche you’ve ever read. Jonathan lives in a creepy old house next door to Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). It turns out the two of them are witches and there is an evil and mysterious clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house left there by an evil and mysterious wizard. Lewis is, of course, intrigued by magic and events unfold from there.
Honestly, a large chunk of the charm comes from the casting in this film. Blanchett and Black are a fantastic duo who spar off each other wonderfully and lift dialog above its station. The two bounce from comedic to dramatic in wonderful fashion and both seem to be having fun with the parts, especially Blanchett, who doesn’t get to flex her comedic muscles as often as Black. Vaccaro keeps pace with them, even if he’s not quite up to landing his lines as pitch-perfect as the experienced pair is. It’s one of those cases where a movie could only work thanks to its cast. If two lesser actors who were less interested had taken these parts a large chunk of the charm of the film would be gone.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its own strengths outside of the actors in it. Not-so-surprisingly, restraint actually helps Roth be a better director. Ever since Hostel he’s been in a game of one-upmanship with himself, trying to get more and more disturbing or weird or… whatever. It hasn’t worked. By constraining himself to a kid’s movie the stuff he actually does well is able to come through without the blood, gore, and sex obscuring it. He’s able to balance humor, horror, and story with a bit of awe and turn out something fun.
His horror roots are there, though. This might be the scariest kids movie in a long while. There’s a room full of creepy robotic dolls, scary living pumpkins, a zombie, and a host of other disturbing things. Roth doesn’t shy away from using standard horror movie techniques to pull scares either. When the movie wants to be tense and horrific it goes for it. Nothing ever goes too far for kids, but younger ones might get a little more than they were asking for. It might, in fact, be a perfect testing ground to see if your child is ready to watch some scarier films.
It’s this unashamed approach to horror that gives the film the rest of its charm, too. You don’t often see children’s movies that are OK with scaring kids. There’s something refreshing about it that lends an air of authenticity to the movie. With a story that really does pull at the heartstrings, while also exploring a pretty cool world of witches, warlocks, and magic, the film captures a certain sense of childhood wonder, but also childhood fear. It’s the latter that’s often missing from films, but just as big a part of what being a kid is about. And that fear isn’t just about scary houses and evil monsters, but about being alone, being an outsider, and being accepted. It’s this central, emotional heart, coupled with the outstanding performances, that delivers a movie with that unique sense of charm.
There are issues with A House with a Clock in Its Walls for sure. The film’s conclusion seems a bit rushed, with a ton of exposition dropping at the end. It can get a bit visually confusing here and there too. These flaws, however, don’t outweigh the bit of fun and scares the film offers, and how the whole movie comes together to cast a spell that’s a little bit whimsical, a little bit scary, and a whole lot of charming.