Horror director Eli Roth made a movie for kids

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett in The House With A Clock In Its Walls

This could’ve been Eli Roth’s thing. After a decade floundering in genre films that never really hit with audiences or critics, Roth has made a movie that is explicitly aimed at a young audience. Though you don’t necessarily associate the guy who made Hostel with thrilling eight-year-olds with spills and chills, you never know — maybe making Are You Afraid of the Dark?-type stuff was actually his calling all along. It’s the first time that a filmmaker known for an overly dark, violent aesthetic finds themselves surprisingly at ease making slightly twisted movies for kids. But Eli Roth is no Martin Scorsese, and his foray into the world of sub-Burton phantasmagorical kiddie flicks is even more inert than you’d expect.

After the death of his parents, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is forced to go live with a long-lost uncle he’s never met, the eccentric Jonathan Barnavelt. Jonathan, as it turns out, is a warlock (a “boy witch”, in the parlance of Lewis) — not a tremendously good one, but at the very least an enthusiastic one. Jonathan lives in a big old house that was his friend Isaac Izard’s (Kyle MacLachlan) before his death; it seems old Izard had gone power-mad sometime before kicking the bucket and placed an eternally ticking clock somewhere within the house’s walls. More than just a time-telling piece of decorative furniture, the clock is a magical device that could essentially destroy the world as we know it if Izard was to be, say, necromanced by a little kid learning to be a wizard who wanted to impress a friend. With the help of Jonathan’s best friend and neighbour, the good witch Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), Lewis must right his wrongs before the whole world goes ka-boom.

Although it’s based on a book from the mid-’70s and set in the mid-’50s, The House With a Clock in Its Walls takes all its cues from Harry Potter and the extended works of Tim Burton. It’s a little grotesque but still candy-coloured; it’s gross, but the gore is swapped out for gooey pumpkin innards being vomited out at top speed by a CGI pumpkin (it’s a long story; Blanchett headbutts one of them). It’s at the very least a recipe for something fun and strange, but the final product is curiously listless and surprisingly boring considering all it has going for it.

One of those things is a cast that’s highly overqualified for the material, but also somewhat ill-suited to the task at hand. Black’s performance is curiously dialed-down considering it’s a movie where clocks and ghosts and steampunk doodads are flying all over the place; there’s a little of the manic energy, but so much of his performance seems to rely on looking at the crazy shit that’s happening and deadpanning “This. Is. So. Weird.” and various permutations of the same thing. Ditto Blanchett, though her problem is more that she’s underused than understated. She gets all of the film’s best moments but is pretty much kept out of the third act entirely — even Eli Roth should know that if you have Cate Blanchett and a tentacle monster, you shouldn’t have them fight off-screen.

There are some nice touches: Roth furthers the exploration of the aesthetics of silent/b&w cinema that he began with the propaganda short in Inglourious Basterds here with some interesting (though frankly a little out-of-place) sequences. Kyle MacLachlan as a rotting corpse is always welcome in my book, and the film does do a pretty good job of setting up a magical world without having to hold our hands through it from minute one. I do hate saying this about a movie that was clearly made to entertain small children, but The House With a Clock in Its Walls simply lacks a sense of fun and wonder. It goes through the paces but there’s nothing there. One of the criticisms often lobbed at Roth is that he’s somewhat of a dilettante, making genre films with only a nominal understanding of what makes the genre work. In that same respect, Roth seems to have a pretty hazy understanding of who the audience for this movie actually is; instead of a movie that parents and kids could enjoy, he seems to have split the difference. The most fun thing about this movie is you can perfectly sing the title to the tune of the Smiths’ “The Boy With a Thorn in His Side” and even that has a limited shelf life. ■

The House With a Clock in Its Walls opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 21. Watch the trailer here:

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