This review was originally written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
There’s a thin line between creepy and disturbing. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” has no idea where that line is. Ostensibly, a family film set in a world where magic exists, “House…” aims to be a fun and dark rollercoaster ride. Instead, it’s a joyless, poorly developed movie that leaves you exhausted.
Set in 1955, “House…” kicks off promisingly enough with young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), tragically orphaned, coming to live with his estranged uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Jonathan is jovial and a little weird, but the house he lives in is even weirder. Jack-o-lanterns are kept at the entrance year-round, the furniture seems to have a life of its own, and did that stained glass window just move? They’re joined by Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), Jonathan’s neighbor and best friend. She accesses hidden stairways in the house and silences an organ playing on its own with a quick shush. At night, Lewis hears a constant ticking coming from somewhere in the house, but where?
With a snappy pace, “House” doesn’t drag these core mysteries out for too long, though as the answers start chugging in, the movie begins to go off the rails. Jonathan and Florence are warlock and witch, respectively, and the mysterious house used to belong to Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), an evil warlock, recently deceased, who built that hidden clock for nefarious reasons. Discovering his family’s secret, Lewis trains to be a warlock while the trio searches for the clock, which is counting down to something; whatever it is, it probably won’t be good.
The movie is directed by Eli Roth, best known for uber-gory horror like “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel,” a movie that coined the term “torture porn.” So what does he bring to a kid’s fantasy/horror film? Well, he does his best Tim Burton and Sam Raimi impressions, but all he comes up with is an adequate Eli Roth. He attempts to mimic the gothic atmosphere of Burton and the kinetic camera movements of Raimi, but they’re only good enough at best and half-hearted at worst. The film’s recreation of 1955 is decent, lots of tweeds and browns, neon-lit candy shops, etc., but the colors don’t pop, the mood of the world just doesn’t envelop you, and when things get a bit more twisted, the visuals are never as spine-tingly as they should be.
Every once in a while Roth channels Raimi, borrowing his famous Dutch (tilted) angles, but his use seems random, and sequences that could have benefitted from Raimi’s furious energy, don’t have them. When the heroes have to fight monstrous jack-o-lanterns, the scene’s blocked in such a way that the actors appear to be awkwardly swatting at air, both performers and camera barely moving. It’s too constrained and completely lacking energy.
Meanwhile, the worldbuilding of “House…” is shoddy, the rules of its universe unclear. Who can and cannot do magic? Who knows about it and who doesn’t? How does one wield it? The answers are nebulous. The movie is covered in a foggy logic, its tendrils infecting every aspect of the production. Who these characters are, what they mean to each other are also unclear. How Jonathan and Florence met, what keeps them together are kept maddeningly elusive. Even the geography is confounding. Florence is their neighbor, but we never see her house properly, even though the characters keep popping in and out of it. True, this last complaint seems pedantic, but towards the end when the protagonists flee to her home, I couldn’t even tell that the locations had changed. I kept thinking they were still in the titular house, so unclear and repetitive was the production design. And if a magical house that’s supposed to stoke the imagination looks exactly the same as the supposedly regular one next door (I assume it’s next door) somebody isn’t doing their job right.
There’s just no sense of wonder. This is a world with magic, but the movie itself doesn’t have any, careening awkwardly between cheap humor and dark scares. There isn’t a potty joke too low for Roth to throw at the audience. And when the movie goes scary, it descends into the occult that’s, frankly, disturbing. A character is ritualistically brought back from the dead, and every time he shows up maggots are crawling on him or falling out of his ears.
Walking out of the theater, a colleague asked what the movie was rated. “PG,” I responded. “Really?” We shook our heads. Granted, the children in the audience I saw it with didn’t seem the slightest bit disturbed or upset. Me? I walked into the night defeated and depressed.