Eli Roth’s ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ is a surprisingly joyful ode to oddness

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Director Eli Roth’s previous films aren’t exactly a lot to look at. They’re usually torture-porn vehicles littered with a healthy dose of butchered heads, arms and guts.

So, it might come as a surprise that watching Roth’s first venture into family-friendly fare, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” often feels like devouring a giant chocolate sundae, replete with swirls of sprinkles, caramel sauce and pounds of whipped cream. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a pure delight: sweet and overly indulgent, propelled by a strong sense of 1950s nostalgia and joy. While you may feel a little bloated by the end, who cares when you had so much fun stuffing your face getting there?

Like many other fantastical bildungsromans that came before it, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” follows a young boy propelled into a world of magic and odd relatives. The storyline is much of the same: Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moves to New Zebedee, Michigan, after the sudden death of his parents, to join his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in his larger-than-life craftsman mansion. Jonathan is soon revealed to be a warlock, or “boy witch.” The house, too, is not exactly as it seems with portraits moving, suits of armour springing to life and animal hedges transform into, well, animals.

The real mystery of the house, however, lies in, who would’ve guessed it, the clock in its walls. Hidden in the house by its previous owner, the evil magician Isaac Izard (cult favorite Kyle MacLachlan), the clock produces a constant ticking noise, sending Jonathan and Owen on a wild goose chase throughout the manor on a search for the source of the ticking and Izard’s nefarious intentions behind its placement. Their search is joined by their neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a Parisian expat who daylights as a witch and makes the best darn chocolate chip cookies in all of Michigan (the secret is in the nuts).

If this all sounds really familiar, it’s probably because it is. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” does not try to subvert the genre so much as it perfects it. Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke infuse age-old kid flick horror tropes with a surprising freshness that comes from their willingness to embrace the weirdness of their world.

For every scene that includes the necessary homage to jack-o’-lanterns and iron-gated cemeteries, there’s another that includes Jack Black creating the entirety of a solar system out of a saxophone or Jack Black transforming into a bearded baby or Jack Black unironically donning a kimono. Upon retrospect, Jack Black is probably just pretty weird.

But, in many ways, the simple existence of this film surpasses the weirdness of Black’s occasional quirks. This is a film that relies mostly on traditional sets and props to create the ambiance of Roth’s world. Uncle Jonathan’s house is built with striking detail, walls plastered with azure moons and floor-to-ceiling stained glass. It harkens back to films such as “The Lord of the Rings” series or the first couple of “Harry Potter” movies, where the worlds seemed lived in and filled with endless possibility.  

And like these films, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” isn’t afraid to scare its audience of youngsters. Roth haunts the screen with more than a few jump-scares (keep an eye on the cuckoo clocks) and the third act of the film surprisingly veers toward a nightmarish WWII subplot with a subliminally anti-war message. Roth clearly knows how to construct a frightening image, and despite its PG rating, he doesn’t hold anything back.

All of this makes “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” seem like a breath of fresh autumn air in a sea of otherwise forgettable kids entertainment that all looks the same. The farting hedge-monsters and constipation jokes exist only as a layer of artifice to Roth’s true intentions: to teach viewers that our inner weirdness is oftentimes the best part of ourselves. Once you embrace that, according to Roth, anything is possible.

Who would’ve guessed this was the same guy who made a name for himself forcing his viewers to watch groups of college students gobble each other up for lunch? He has come a long way.

Contact Nils Jepson at [email protected].