Quite a few famous directors have made their way into more family friendly fare after making a name for themselves in more mature genres. Danny Boyle, Sam Raimi, Martin Scorsese and Robert Rodriguez all started in the hard R department before venturing into kiddy fare. Now horror director Eli Roth (“Knock Knock”, “The Green Inferno”, “Hostel”) has followed in their footsteps with “The House With A Clock In Its Walls”.
Roth’s horror roots show throughout the film, thanks to strong art direction and cinematography throughout. Orange light and dark atmospheric touches are abound in every scene, and the musical score from composer Nathan Barr (“Hostel”, “Hemlock Grove”) is effectively creepy and sinister exactly when it needs to be.
Everything about the film is solid production wise, creating a wonderful sense of nostalgic atmosphere, like that of films like “E.T.” or “Super 8”. It evokes the kind of feeling associated with walking into an old library. Roth and his crew have built a house and established a feeling of history and wonder.
All of these production achievements are great, but they mean nothing if the film they’re backing up isn’t solid in other departments. The rest of the film is mostly good. Its biggest issue is the first act, wherein the film’s tone lands squarely in the goofy, family friendly arena that previous Jack Black vehicles like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Goosebumps” have occupied. It’s fine enough and it doesn’t ruin the film, but it manages to be the least interesting part of the story.
However, once things pick up in the last two-thirds of the movie, they really pick up! This is also the part of the film where Roth’s horror sensibilities are able to come out and play, as the film manages to successfully distance itself from the faux creep family genre and travels into the realm of legitimate scares.
Demons, blood rituals, instruments made of bone, satanic symbols and more pepper throughout the rest of the film, adding tension and creating a legitimately creepy tone that helps the film stand out and capitalize on its source material. Some moments even cross into the realm of downright ingeniously unsettling, like a certain camouflaged reveal sequence.
Jack Black gleefully prances around the scenery, finally being allowed to rely on his comedic timing only, without having writers who fall back on his portly stereotype. He’s electric and his smile and cockeyed charm help sell his character’s persona.
Owen Vaccaro is just fine as the young Lewis, nephew of Jack Black’s Jonathan. He’s the typical child actor, who’s weaknesses show during the more emotional scenes, but manages to be solid and reliable throughout. Cate Blanchett steals the show, providing the most push behind her badass witch Florence. It helps that she’s given the most emotional heft to work with and she knocks it out of the house.
The supporting cast is fine as well. Vanessa Anne Williams is poorly underutilized as Lewis’s bug loving friend Rose, Sunny Suljic (“God of War (2018)”) delivers an easily hate-able greaser bully with Tarby and the evil duo of Izard and Selena are played to devilish perfection by Kyle MacLachlan and Renée Elise Goldsberry, respectively.
The film’s best aspect is not only its tone, but its themes. Its focus on family and platonic friendship over romances, the importance of knowledge, the ability to see things from new and different perspectives and the focus on unconventional family all land right in the sweet spot of kind messaging, without ever being shoved down audience’s throats.
“House with a Clock in its Walls” proves that not only can director Eli Roth successfully transition from horror to family film territory, but also help bridge the gap between the two genres in a satisfying way. It may have a weak first act that struggles with its tone, but once things get moving, everything is nailed down to a deliciously creepy degree. It isn’t perfect, but it‘s just as unsettling and fantastical as it needs to be. 4/5