by Trevor Sheffield
Derivative: Adjective, Imitative of the work of another person, and usually disapproved of for that reason. To take it straight from the dictionary, a derivative work is something that we’ve seen time and time again, to the point of being shunned for its’ lack of innovation. Nowhere is this more commonplace than the horror genre. For every movie about a mythical serial killer, you get sixteen more trying to ape its’ success. For every movie about evil aliens trying to exterminate the human race, you get twenty different movies sent to theaters because they gave their alien one more antenna than the one before it. For every movie about a haunted doll, a cabin in the woods, a haunted house…you can guess where it goes from there.
One would assume the question at the forefront would be: When will it end? However, I feel the real question should be: When will we get something decent out of this?
The House with a Clock in Its’ Walls, adapted from the first book of a series by John Bellaris by Eli Roth of all people, tells the story of a newly-orphaned boy in the 1950s named Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, of Daddy’s Home and Fun Mom Dinner fame) who goes off to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in his ridiculously large (and totally not haunted) house. It is soon revealed that Jonathan (and his neighbor, Florence, played by Cate Blanchett) are magical folk, that the house is also magical, and that within its’ walls lies a clock created by Jon’s old partner which may or may not be a gigantic doomsday device conceptualized by a literal Lord of Hell.
You know, for kids!
Oops! All Satanists!
In all seriousness, though, I cannot praise this film enough for some of the things it does in regards to tone and content in comparison to other films of its’ kind. I personally have never read the source material upon which this film was based, but that said, the movie isn’t afraid to actually tackle and utilize concepts that would otherwise be ignored or toned down. I’m talking about actually acknowledging death as an actual ‘thing’ in this universe (tying into the overarching theme of Lewis dealing with the loss of his folks). I’m talking about name-dropping necromancy and blood magic in regards to religion and seeing a literal corpse get necromanced on-screen, maggots and all.
As I mentioned earlier, a critical plot point hinges on one of the characters (in flashback) going off to fight in WWII, having their entire platoon killed, and literally making a deal with an actual lord of hell in exchange for dark magic and eventually causing Armageddon.
In that respect, it’s important to note that The House with A Clock in Its’ Walls was produced by Steven Spielberg’s production house Amblin Entertainment, hot off the heels of Ready Player One earlier this year and known for producing family films that tend to aim higher than your average family film…only to re-release them twenty years later and change all the guns into walkie-talkies. Bitterness over theatrical revisionism aside, I commend the film for not talking down to its’ audience when it comes to topics like these…most of the time.
Bickering With a Skeleton
To comment on the elephant in the room, Jack Black has recently been carving out a niche for himself by being the “magical mentor/touchstone character” in pseudo-Spielbergian Halloween-themed family movies. Starting with his dual role as writer R.L. Stine and his creation Slappy the Dummy in 2015’s Goosebumps (a film I found enjoyable), only to go onto this film and to reprise his role as Slappy in this year’s Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween, it feels like a compromise between the more adult and mature work of his yesteryear and the more child-friendly, “three-time Kids’ Choice Awards host” persona he has built for himself throughout the early 2000’s.
I am honestly fine with this.
To cut to the chase, Jack Black in this film is playing Jack Black as an inept saxophone-playing warlock from the 1950’s. Black is obviously no stranger to material like this, and the moments where this film actually allows him to act and be more serious are a refreshing change of pace from his typical loud-and-enthusiastic approach to acting in films meant for a younger audience. That’s not to say that Black doesn’t debase himself for a gag, though. There are multiple points throughout the movie where Black cracks one-liners that have been clearly added to finished scenes in post-production that directly clash with what the film is going for, and it really drags the film down at points. However, it’s nowhere near as obnoxious as, say, his performance in Gulliver’s Travels…save for a ‘gag’ later in the film which I’ll get into later.
What’s surprising about this performance, however, is how well he works with Cate Blanchett. The two have a platonic relationship throughout the movie which mainly consists of base-level schoolyard insults and working together when called for. Yet, and as strange as this sounds, you honestly get a sense that the two characters genuinely care about each other and you want to see them succeed over the course of the story. Cate herself shines as a subtle motherly figure for Lewis, and her subplot throughout the movie gives a far stronger emotional throughline than that of the main plot.
Speaking of, Lewis (as a character) is okay. He goes through the motions of your basic “magic orphan” story, and mainly feels there just to give the characters around him something to react to, despite him being the protagonist of the story. God bless him, but Owen Vaccaro has a hard time delivering his lines without falling into sounding like your typical child actor reciting dialogue without giving it as much emotion as it needs to properly land. Considering the scale of the overall project, I feel that he is honestly trying his best with what he is given, but it pales in comparison to the powerhouses around him.
The Scariest Thing You’ll See in Theatres
A film like this, in most cases, lives or dies by the value of its’ special effects and production value, and overall, the work in this regard is a mixed bag. For the most part, the film relies on a more physical approach to its’ effect work, and that level of practicality shows. Almost all of the sets are entirely (or appear to be entirely) physical, give or take some minor elements done in CG. In turn, some of the effects used for whenever magic is on display are entirely practical. At one point in the film, Black’s character is being levitated out of his control via wires. It’s not particularly convincing to the trained eye, but it feels earnest in how its’ done.
However, it’s the film’s usage of CGI that is far more dodgy. When it’s used for magical purposes (mainly fire, bolts of energy done ala lighting), it’s honestly tolerable. However, when it’s being used on a far greater scale than simple parlor tricks, it feels out of place and floaty. Two ‘wacky’ animal sidekicks that live inside the titular house, an armchair that’s basically a dog and a griffin made of shrubbery (whose running gag in the movie is that it repeatedly poops manure and leaves on people to which Jonathan immediately remarks off-screen “Litterbox!”) are done for the most part, if not entirely, through CG. In turn, whenever they’re on-screen, they ironically feel like ghosts in the space of the film despite being implied to have a practical effect on the environment.
That said, none of this compares to how congested and horrifyingly uncanny the climax of the film is. The set design loses all sense of practicality in favor of an “arena” that brought to mind flashbacks of Spy Kids 4: All The Time in The World, and any tension built over the course of the film’s admittedly dark final act is near literally whizzed away thanks in part to one of the most disturbing special effects failures I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The effect itself defies description, and watching it in horrifying motion felt like staring into the Uncanny Valley, and having it stare back. The most I can say about it is that it’s played as a joke, foreshadowed earlier in the final chunk of the film through an ADR’ed line by Black saying he has to pee. Anything else would both not only spoil the film’s final act, but also the collective appetite of every living being in all existence. It’s that bad.
For No Mere Mortal Can Ever Face…
Don’t get me wrong, The House with A Clock in Its’ Walls is honestly enjoyable…to a certain point. Eli Roth excels at delivering a decent homage to the classics of Spielberg’s yesteryear, and I feel that this movie wouldn’t be a bad introduction for kids nowadays to films like it. The production values (for the most part) are enrapturing, and the actors are clearly having a field day with the material they’re given. The problem is that said material feels extremely derivative of other works and at times dumbed down with potty humor and juvenile jokes that clash with the more mature tone and plot elements. Without a doubt, the last ten minutes of this movie can be a total deal-breaker for the whole affair. The House with A Clock in It’s Walls is a mixed bag, but at the end of the day, it’s an enjoyable ride and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again…give or take that ending.
…Also, if you can catch a screening of this movie with the 3D remaster of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video in front of it (which may not be in continuation after a week post the film’s wide release) it is worth the price of admission, no holds barred. I’m surprised that wasn’t THE focal point of this movie’s entire marketing campaign.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
‘The House with A Clock in Its Walls’ is a spooktacular Spielberg throwback marred by some iffy effects and poorly-done punch-up. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett absolutely steal the show with a surprising amount of chemistry, the latter adding a necessary sense of heart that the main narrative tries to pull off (to mixed results). Darker than your average Autumn family flick, it makes for a perfect matinee and a potential staple of yearly cable Halloween movie marathons for years to come. Not as well-wound as it should have been, but even a broken clock can still get the time right if the conditions are favorable.