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In Theaters: THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS (2018)

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THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS
(US - 2018)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eric Kripke. Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, Owen Vaccaro, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerkin, Vanessa Anne Williams. (PG, 105 mins)

Based on the popular 1973 YA fantasy/mystery novel by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS makes its nostalgic intent clear from the start with an old-school Universal logo. Produced by Amblin Entertainment, HOUSE has the retro look, feel, and charm of any number of Steven Spielberg productions of the 1980s, so much so that it almost feels like you've gone back to 1985 to see the latest Joe Dante, Robert Zemekis, or Richard Donner movie. But the film is directed by Eli Roth, best known for his more extreme horrors of the first two HOSTEL films and the Italian cannibal homage THE GREEN INFERNO, and who just had the remake of DEATH WISH in theaters six months ago. The notion of splatter and grindhouse superfan Roth directing a kid-friendly, PG-rated Spielberg throwback might've seemed unthinkable at one point, but he creates an effectively foreboding atmosphere in its old, dark house setting and doesn't skimp on age-appropriate scares and some comical but still disturbing imagery. It got a good reaction from the few kids at a sparsely-attended matinee. I don't often see kids movies in the theater, but judging from the fact that they kept quiet, paid attention, laughed at things that were funny, said "Ew, gross!" at things that were gross, and applauded at the end, it seems Roth's efforts connected with the target audience, though it's also nostalgic fun for children of the '80s as well.






In 1955, orphaned misfit Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to the fictional Michigan town of New Zebedee to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) following his parents' tragic death in a car accident. Jonathan wears a fez and a kimono, allows Lewis all manner of freedoms (no bedtime, he can come and go as he pleases, and he can have cookies for dinner if he so chooses) and lives in a mysterious mansion referred to as "the slaughterhouse" by the kids at school. The only rule: there's a locked room from which Lewis is forbidden. The house and everything in it seem to be "alive," which Uncle Jonathan can't keep from Lewis for very long. He soon reveals that he's a "good" warlock, with a platonic, mutually chops-busting friendship with his neighbor and purple-loving fellow witch Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who feels a kinship to young Lewis as she also lost her family in a horrific way in Europe during WWII. Lewis expresses interest in learning his uncle's warlock ways, and in an effort to bond with his one friend, lets young jock Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic of THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) into the forbidden room where he removes a book of demonic spells from a locked cabinet. This resurrects Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan under extensive makeup that makes him look like a zombie David McCallum), a master warlock and Jonathan's former mentor who died under mysterious circumstances a year earlier, after which Jonathan moved into his house. For the subsequent year, Izard has been tormenting Jonathan from the grave with a powerful clock hidden somewhere in the walls of the house that he intended to use for a diabolical plot to align the "magical world" with the real world, and the only thing keeping that from happening was Jonathan ensuring that Izard's book remained under lock and key.


From the Norman Rockwell-esque period detail of New Zebedee to the obligatory grouchy, busybody neighbor Mrs. Hanchett (Colleen Camp, riffing on Polly Holliday's Mrs. Deagle from GREMLINS) to a roomful of extremely living dolls to its elaborately detailed production design, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is enjoyable fun from beginning to end, with Vaccaro, Black, and Blanchett making an immensely likable trio of evil-fighting oddballs. Blanchett in particular seems to be having a good time, and it's not every day that you see a two-time Oscar winner head-butting a vomiting, demonic pumpkin that's been brought to life by the diabolical Izard. The script by Eric Kripke (creator of SUPERNATURAL, which sits right alongside GREY'S ANATOMY as the TV series most likely to make you say "Huh? What? That's still on?!" whenever someone mentions it) goes for some cheap laughs on occasion--Jonathan's garden has a scene-stealing, living topiary griffin with a problem controlling its bowels, and when Izard casts a spell on Jonathan, the image of Jack Black's head on a peeing infant's body is one of 2018's most impossible to shake, and that's in the same year as things seen in ANNIHILATION and HEREDITARY--but it's a fun addition to what will certainly become a Halloween family favorite for years to come. The book was the first of a dozen Lewis Barnavelt novels so far, the first three written by Bellairs from 1973 to 1976, then by Brad Strickland, who rebooted the long-dormant series in 1993, two years after Bellairs' death.


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