Based on the 1973 kids book, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is Eli Roth’s first step into family film territory, having made predominantly gory horror films up to this point. While his knowledge of horror works wonders in casting a darkness to this family scare fest, the film is flawed by an ever-growing silliness and a lack of confidence in its source material.
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett play a warlock and witch who have to look after Black’s orphaned nephew while also tending to an old magical house that appears to have grave horrors looming. The casting of these two is superb and they share a lot of quick banter and fun dialogue. The costume and set design is beautiful and calls back to the classic haunted house story. Accompanying this are some interesting pieces of cinematography including the use of Dutch angles. That being said, the whole design of the film did feel slightly safe, and could have been even more over the top, in a similar style to ‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’.
The key standout of this film, as with many horror films, is the sound design. Constant ticking from all angles keeps you engaged and maintains the pace of the film while also building suspense. It’s a great horror film for kids that introduces them to jump scares and tension without ever getting too scary. The classic troupes are also there, including everything from the pigeon flapping jump scare to the creepy monkey with cymbals… sitting dusty on a shelf…watching…waiting…
Unfortunately, what makes the film less successful is its lack of confidence to be a proper horror film as it slowly becomes a goofy family film with an ever more slapstick plot. After a great build up and ominous foreshadowing, the film takes a boring route for the ending and becomes cliché and unoriginal. Some of the ways the film backs its way out of major plot points are ridiculous, including a convenient Magic 8 Ball and perhaps the worst hiding of a forbidden key ever seen. Who’d have thought this film would also feature Cate Blanchett firing lasers at pumpkins?
Overall, it’s a fun film that has some really great parts, but also some really bland parts. As an introduction to horror it works, but past entertaining families, I suspect the film will have little longevity.