Directed by Eli Roth
Starring Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Owen Vaccaro
Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
Genre: Fantasy, Family
by Sandy DeVito, WitchQueen of Darkness
What a delight!
I knew I was going to like this film. Call it a hunch. I get those sometimes with certain films. I like Eli Roth's films. Whether you're a fan or not, you have to admit his love of horror is obvious and guileless. That's a love I share. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the love of horror that blossoms in the pit of a child's stomach, that interest in the strange and unknown that often needs a mentor to come into itself. Here, Roth is the chauffeur for a new generation of young people who like the weird stuff in life. He couldn't be a better fit for this material; his enthusiasm is evident in every frame. How could I not love something as heartfelt and Halloween-candy-sweet as this? It will be a Halloween staple for years to come. Children are going to love this film. It's spooky, just the right amount of scary, and its heart is truly in the right place. The production design! I was dying. I was eating that shit up. The house! The pumpkins! The tiny minute details on the books, the creepy dolls, Lewis' bedroom with the murals of moons, all the clocks, the costumes! Love after love after love.
Lewis Barnavelt is left an orphan when his parents die unexpectedly in a car crash. He's sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a silly eccentric with some wonderful secrets who lives in a huge, magical mansion. Jonathan's best friend is Florence (Cate Blanchett), she of the mesmerizing haute couture in every shade of purple imaginable. Lewis is something of an eccentric himself; he wears goggles that mimic his hero, Captain Midnight, and carries around a dictionary whereby he learns complex words and their meanings. Like many of us who love horror and the strange, Lewis is a social outcast who desperately longs to be friends with the most popular kid in school. But his uncle Jonathan has a wonderful adventure in store for him; Jonathan is a warlock, a "boy witch", Florence is a witch (hell yeah!), and there's a dastardly gargantuan clock hidden in the walls of the house, put there by a wicked warlock Jonathan used to know, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Jonathan promises to teach Lewis magic (hell yeah!) and together our threesome attempt to find the clock before something terrible happens.
The film has a fair amount of low-brow humor (the enchanted topiary lion tends to "poop" heaps of rotting leaves on people who get in his way, for instance), but this film is aiming for a very specific audience. Are you a prestigious middle-aged white male critic who turns up his nose at anything deemed "YA"? I have some news for you. THIS FILM IS NOT FOR YOU. It's for those who are young, and those who are young at heart. It's for anyone who can still remember what it's like to be a lonely kid who likes weird stuff, dreaming about being whisked away to live in a fabulous menagerie of delights with a weird uncle who teaches you magic. KEEP DREAMING, this film says. KEEP DOING YOU. Don't worry about the people who don't understand. You will find the people who do understand. My screener was packed with press and public alike, and almost everyone was engaged, enthusiastic, and attentive. We laughed, gasped and gazed enraptured together. Besides Destination Wedding, this has been my favorite theater experience so far this year. Genuine enthusiasm is impossible to fabricate, and my audience was feeling this film in their bones. Halloween is coming!!!, it told us. Magic is alive, dreams are afoot, never let go of that weird kid inside you, who loves things, feels things, and wants adventures.People clapped at the end. My audience loved this film, and so did I.
The design in the film especially makes it exceptionally wonderful; it feels like an enchanted gem found in a dusty attic, one of a kind amid a sea of other gems that look sort of like it, but lack its magic; I really do think so much of that special shine is owed to Roth at the helm here, and to our central three; I love Jack Black, and I have for a long time, but I think I'm at the point where I need to be more vocal about it. An actor as unpretentious and un-self-conscious as he, needs and deserves to be celebrated with abandon. He's hilarious and yet so sincere, heartfelt and sensitive and crazy and wildly expressive. Of course he's a warlock! Cate Blanchett strikes a regal and unforgettable witch to add to the pantheon of great witches, and Owen Vaccaro imbues Lewis with spark and sweetness. I loved the extra spooky bits (the dolls and Azazel, a literal hell-demon, will be the stuff of many a child's enduring nightmares), I loved the humor (the candy shop and the pet chair especially), I loved the evil Isaac and his wife and wicked comrade Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
I loved this film and I can't wait to watch it again. Go see it. Bring your kids, your nephews and nieces, bring your very young friends, bring your friends who are still young inside. Let The House cast its spell on you!