By Jack Dignan
Horror and family films aren’t usually genres you’d associate with one another. One aims to delight children and parents of all ages, while the other tends to shock, provoke and make you uncomfortable. Eli Roth is a horror director known for his extreme gore. The House With A Clock In Its Walls is a children’s book from author John Bellairs. Separately, they don’t sound like they belong together, and yet they’re a match made in heaven. This is, without a doubt, the scariest children’s film I have ever seen, and it’s an absolute ball.
Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro)’s parents are dead. With no other family left, he’s sent away to a new town and new school, where he’s to live with his estranged uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), but there’s something... off about the place. Nothing is what it appears, and his mysterious neighbour Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) isn’t putting his mind at ease. That’s when Lewis discovers his uncle is a warlock, and the house they’re sharing has fallen under a curse of mysterious origin, resulting in an ominous ticking throughout every hallway. Together, the three of them must uncover what this secret is before it unleashes a wave of terror over the Earth.
It’s a thrilling, magical adventure that harkens back to early Harry Potter and 80s Spielberg. The film evokes a keen sense of childhood wonder and naive curiosity so many modern family films fail to grasp. Eric Kripke’s adaptation moves at a swift, lively pace, maintaining a strong sense of fun and mystery all the way through until the end of the credits. Not only is the core plot genuinely interesting, the characters taking us on this journey are as loveable as can be, no doubt aided by terrific performances from Black and Blanchett, who both feel at home in this magical world of sorcery and pumpkin fighting.
Their wild, unstable antics are the perfect amount of over the top. The two share a fierce, banter-filled dynamic, yet you can always tell that they genuinely care for one another. Plus, seeing the two a-listers throw about such insults as “go braid your back hair” is all I’ve ever wanted in a movie. But the heart of the film really rests in Owen Vaccaro’s steady hands, and, much to my delight, he’s really able to pull this movie through. His relationship with Sunny Suljic’s Tarby, a school friend turned enemy, has its ups and downs, mostly without much justification, leading to a number of puzzling character choices, but both give noteworthy performances.
Still, it’s Eli Roth’s competent direction that really brings this whole film together. His once-devise approach to storytelling really fits in a more family-oriented environment. It’s a film as scary as it is funny. There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout, with one visual in the third act even making me uncomfortable. While parents are bound to be dealing with their children’s nightmares for years after coming out of the theatre, rest assured there’s still a number of poop gags that’ll bring the kids back to an alleviated state.
Not all the humour lands, and most of it that doesn’t work usually involves performances from side characters that feel anything but real, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the target audience for those jokes. Not all kids are going to pick up on the obvious foreshadowing throughout, either, something that made smaller plot elements, for me, quite predictable (although, there were still some surprises to be had). But kids are going to pick up on a demon feasting on the flesh of a soldier, so have fun explaining that one, parents.
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