For a director mostly known for gory cannibal/torture flicks like Hostel and The Green Inferno, Eli Roth has gone on to helm one of his finest features yet with an Amblin family fantasy! But before horror hounds run for the hills screaming “sell-out!”, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is far from the plastic PG fright-laden picture some might imagine, given the oddly Christmassy “Harry Potter for horror fans” posters. Based on a book by John Bellairs, Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke’s gaudy haunted film fun-house is bursting with a firework display of vibrant concepts, riveting fantasy dread, necromancy, ghouls and squirmy purple tentacles. All a young horror fan could hope for and far creepier than the demon nuns and slender men of recent “grown-up” genre hiccups.
It’s 1955, New Zebedee, Michigan: after the death of his parents, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his strange, estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), and Norma Desmond-like platonic partner Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). After settling into his new home and local school, Lewis notices uncanny happenings around him. Buried family secrets are gradually unravelled and our young protagonist is told about a mysterious clock hidden in the heart of the house that is slowly driving Jonathan insane. After a supernatural slip up, Lewis sets on a quest to find the clock and put an end to the paranormal presence threatening his family.
Following a clunky, but punchy set up, during which Roth’s latest unfurls like Tim Burton directed The People Under The Stairs, character secrets are skillfully spilled while back stories and contexts are utilised brilliantly (by screenwriter Kripke) as a driving force for the plot, teasing nightmares and horror out of set-piece trappings then twisting them into revelations. Lewis (a part-perfect Vaccaro) is the classic book hording school bore enthralled by what his uncle thought might frighten him. The stereotype stops there as Lewis befriends the type of character one could imagine him being up against. His relationship with Jonathan and Mrs Zimmerman (and theirs with each other) then twists dynamics and viewer expectations with that matchless Amblin magic.
Poignancy grounds THWACIIW while amplifying the horror by making us care about its characters, along with the budding friendship between Jonathan and platonic soul-mate, Mrs. Zimmerman. The script then sifts into a hybrid of The Frighteners, The Shining and Evil Dead 2 (for kids), with Kubrick/King’s classic being evoked by an axe-wielding Jack Black, while Lewis stares on like a frightened Danny Torrance. THWACIIW constantly blooms into something more elevating. The “family friendly” frights that Roth crafts so winningly (resisting the urge to hurl blood over everything or hack actors into flesh chunks) stems from writers Bellairs and Kirpke’s delicate incorporation of necromancy, witchcraft and devil worship within a family film/novel; at times recalling classic children’s horror/ fantasy flicks like The Watcher in the Woods, Return to Oz, Explorers and The Monster Squad. One character also partly resembles Julian Beck’s terrifying Kane from Poltergeist 2: The Other Side (not exactly family viewing).
THWACIIW should be embraced by horror fans/aficionados as much as families and general cinemagoers, due to its outlandish inventiveness, enthralling subject matter and relatable characters. It’s a near perfect “PG/13” horror for all that skilfully blends scares with wonder. Black gives his best performance in years (edging on bonkers with crooning eloquence) while Blanchett bewitches (even while head-butting possessed pumpkins) in her hypnotic, pump action brolly toting goth Mary Poppins apparel. Roth and Kripke bravely tackle areas uncharted in family cinema, like Roald Dahl and Sam Raimi in a demon possessed spin dryer. Hopefully Roth will hold back on the gore to focus more on creeping/ freaking out in future projects too, as his ability to unnerve with restraint out of his element, is more fascinating than watching characters dispassionately bludgeoned with blunt objects and served as one part of a poisoned meat blancmange. Not that that’s a bad thing.