Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Eli Roth, 2018)

  Fig. 1 -  The House with a Clock in Its Walls  (Eli Roth, 2018).

Fig. 1 - The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Eli Roth, 2018).

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Eli Roth, 2018) marks director Eli Roth’s first foray into family-friendly fantasy, following a career established largely within horror cinema thanks to his directorial debut Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2002) and the Hostel films (Eli Roth, 2005-2007), which consolidated the much-maligned and highly graphic “torture porn” subgenre as a strong current of post-millenial Hollywood (see Jones 2013; Kerner 2015). Alongside Death Wish (Eli Roth, 2018) released in March of this year, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is also Roth’s second feature to hit cinemas in 2018. It is fitting, perhaps, that his follow-up to a Bruce Willis-starring vigilante action thriller is an altogether more playful and less bloody affair, though not without some admittedly genuine frightful moments that despite its 12A rating certainly owes a debt to Roth’s horror film CV. The result is that Roth’s take on John Bellair’s 1973 child novel in this Halloween season offers up visually sumptuous - if at times narratively lacking - fantasy film, one with multiple verbal and visual allusions to fairytale storytelling traditions all supported by a plentiful use of animation. Indeed, a glimpse through the closing credits for the film (which themselves culminate with several intricately inked drawings) reveals its reliance on effects technology, from practical modelwork, digital compositing and CGI to eerie puppet automatons that come to the fore in the film’s dramatic final third. Yet given its overwhelming emphasis on the machinations of clocks and time, it is tempting to view The House with a Clock in Its Walls as curiously dated and out of step, propelled forward by its impressive digital animation on the one hand, but quickly taken back again by an overall tone that feels part-Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993), part-Jumanji (Chris Columbus, 1995) and part-Casper (Brad Silberling, 1995). That is, some scenes somehow feel very nineties, a throwback to a time when family-friendly horror was unleashed through the novelty of Hollywood’s still-new CG magic. Perhaps this familiar quality that underwrites the film might also, ironically, be one of its strengths. The novelty of computer graphics might be long gone, but the “suburban sorcery” narrative that feels so second generation from genre cinema gone by is here neatly re-conjured as a nostalgic and extremely enjoyable re-imagining thanks to some standout performances and effects-heavy set pieces.

  Fig. 2 - Magical warlock and conjurer Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black).

Fig. 2 - Magical warlock and conjurer Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black).

The promotional material for Roth’s film would (unsurprisingly) have you believe that its stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett run the show (Fig. 1). However, Black’s characteristic hyperactivity honed in broad(er) comedies and Blanchett’s wonderful understatement that gives proceedings a degree of class only tells part of the story. Rather, the narrative is entirely anchored by the performance of Owen Vacarro as ten-year-old orphan Lewis Barnavelt, who manages to convey the character’s fascination and fear at the world’s benevolent forces without overplaying his reaction to the encroaching fantasy that progressively envelops him. Articulate and erudite, Lewis is a Young Adult hero whose way with words and dapper sense of style appears strikingly reminiscent of CBS television comedy series Young Sheldon (Chuck Lorre & Steven Molaro, 2017-), though with less far-fetched comedy rooted in his impressive intellectual capabilities. Set in 1955 (coincidentally the same year as some of the events in Back to the Future [Robert Zemeckis, 1985) - but more of that later), The House with a Clock in Its Walls opens on Lewis’ move to the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan to stay with his ex-magician uncle Jonathan Barnevelt (played by Black) following the death of the youngster’s parents. Also staying under Jonathan’s roof is Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), a mysterious vision in purple and part-time witch who harbours her own personal turmoil that has pulled a veil over her desire to summon magical forces. The dialogue early on establishing Lewis’ bereavement and sense of dislocation is strong, as is the humorous verbal sparring between Jonathan and Florence as two lost souls forced to spent all their time together in a house that appears more alive than them. Lewis’ arrival reignites both their love for magic and affection for each other (steadfastly platonic, we are told), whilst paving the way for the latent witchcraft and wizardry to slowly reveal itself. And slowly it is too. Notable here is the continued absence of fantastical intrusion, and aside from a sentient armchair and an ever-changing stain-glassed window (shades of the moving staircases at Hogwarts), The House with a Clock in Its Walls initially plays its cards very close to its chest (Fig. 2). Thanks to the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster, I was expecting a more robust turn by the film to the spectacle of animated fantasy, but instead Roth is rightly careful to maintain its invisibility by working on the power of suggestion. It is Lewis and the spectator who must do all the work, following the nocturnal Jonathan as he tries in vain to locate the source of the house’s ever-ticking and tocking, and wondering what lies inside an imposing locked cabinet that Jonathan tells Lewis he must never go inside. As Jonathan replies when Florence asks him if he’s told his nephew everything, “well, not everything,” and this degree of occlusion is certainly the film’s philosophy. For Lewis in particular, fantasy is something that seems to happen to other people, or at the very least is always heard first and seen second. Things change an hour into the film with (mild spoiler alert) the appearance of deceased Isaaz Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), Jonathan’s ex-performing partner and previous owner of the eponymous house in which the majority of the film’s action takes place. It was Isaac who, along with wife Selina, built a powerful clock hidden somewhere within the house's walls before his death. But Isaac’s unexpected release from his tomb on Halloween sets in motion a literally ticking time bomb that only Lewis and his new protective guardians Jonathan and Florence can prevent (Fig. 3).

  Fig. 3 - Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) rediscovers her magic touch.

Fig. 3 - Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) rediscovers her magic touch.

Despite shifting the Gothic focus of its source material to the margins (though in doing so, Roth avoids any reproduction of a Tim Burton-esque aesthetic style), what makes The House with a Clock in Its Walls so enjoyable is how it treats fantasy as real. In a short exchange between Lewis and Florence, the latter mentions the origins of the Brothers Grimm’s ‘histories’, which is soon corrected by the boy (“you mean, fairytales?”). Florence gives a playful look - a knowing gesture to the reality of fantasy, and the truthfulness of its genealogy within the world of the film. For the characters in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, fantasy exists and must be understood as such in order for the narrative jeopardy to be staked, explained and then thwarted. Fantasy is just something that happens. There is also a charged political/historical subtext that nicely supports the fantasy onscreen, not uncommon for a genre that is often interpreted symptomatically and/or allegorically as a barometer of real-world events. Charles Forceville is not alone in arguing that fantasy films “need little excuse” to “invite metaphorical construal” in terms of interpretative hermeneutics (interestingly adding that “the same holds for animation films” due to its fundamentally rhetorical nature) (2016: 26). In The House with a Clock in Its Walls, we are told that Florence is an émigrée from Paris who fled to the U.S. after the war (her numerical tattoo can be glimpsed in one scene with Lewis), while Isaac’s disheveled appearance upon his first return while serving in the army (told in flashback by Jonathan) is passed off as simply due to the horrors of war. These nuances give the film’s narrative of loss and renewal - if not its emergent fantastic beasts - a real emotional edge, and might even have been pushed further. As The Hollywood Reporter’s Harry Windsor puts it, Roth’s film “is most of all a child’s-eye view of a fractured family and its eventual reconstitution, in which a Holocaust survivor thwarts a plan to exterminate not just a race, but humanity itself” (2018). Windsor also makes reference to the film’s evocation of Back to the Future in addition to its 1990s nostalgia, pointing out that “the film is as much about tipping the hat to Amblin classics like Back to the Future (as well as the work of Spielberg himself) as it is a pro forma paean to embracing one’s weirdness” (2018). From the black, blue and red Amblin logo that opens the film to a setting that reprises the Universal Studios backlot exteriors of California’s Hill Valley in Back to the Future, The House with a Clock in Its Walls certainly feels like a deliberate nod to the fantasy films of Roth’s own childhood. Unlike Zemeckis’ film, however, Roth does not fully mine the potential of this mid-fifties Americana setting, and it seems largely an empty backdrop sourced solely for some interestingly eccentric aesthetic choices, including the ‘greaser’ treatment of juvenile delinquency and gratuitous references to Ovaltine drinking powder. The spell that The House with a Clock in Its Walls casts is perhaps not as powerful as it could have been in this respect, but its magic touches provide another cinematic example of where animation, fantasy and horror overlap - as theorised by Catherine Lester in a previous blog post for the Fantasy/Animation site - whilst offering up some imaginative outlets for its sustained discourse of big-screen sorcery. Yet what Roth’s film also achieves is the comforting revival of children’s fantasy and horror cinema of 20+ years ago, rather than a more obvious proximity to another recent Black vehicle rooted in the supernatural excitement of childhood, Goosebumps (Rob Letterman, 2015) (which has just received a sequel, without Black, titled Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween [Ari Sandel, 2018]). As such, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is enjoyable enough to be considered a seasonal treat full of tricks, and far from a waste of time.

References

Forceville, Charles. “Visual and Multimodal Metaphor in Film: Charting the Field,” in Embodied Metaphors in Film, Television, and Video Games: Cognitive Approaches, ed. Kathrin Fahlenbach (New York: Routledge, 2016), 17-32.

Jones, Steve. Torture Porn: Popular Horror after Saw (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Kerner, Aaron Michael. Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11: Horror, Exploitation and the Cinema of Sensation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Windsor, Harry. “‘The House With a Clock in Its Walls’: Film Review,” The Hollywood Reporter (September 18, 2018), available at: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/house-a-clock-walls-review-1143515.