Clockwatchers: Roth Goes YA Route with Surprisingly Sweet Results
It goes without saying, horror director Eli Roth, once part of the perversely coined Splat Pack of the mid-2000s, responsible for the popularized subgenre eventually referred to as torture porn, is hardly synonymous with Young Adult fiction. Due to the risible adolescence of some of his offerings (2015’s Knock Knock comes to mind), Roth might not seem attuned to the magical ingredients necessary for an adaptation of something like John Bellair’s 1973 YA novel The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and yet, to the surprise of many, delivers a spirited example of a type of cinema once popularized then abandoned in mainstream American filmmaking.
Like a host of classic 1970s Disney titles, which weren’t afraid to provoke or disturb the developing minds of their teenage audiences (think Watcher in the Woods or The Black Hole, or better yet, earlier adaptations of Jules Verne novels), Roth will most likely find those who remember those titles most appreciative of this nostalgic ode to the light foreboding which dusted those hopeful, well-meaning explorations of fantastic imagination.
Recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) arrives in 1955 New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Upon arrival, Lewis discovers a magical mansion overrun with an abundance of clocks. Sharing a snarky relationship with the widowed, purple plastered Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who lives next door, the two mysterious individuals becomes immediate pseudo-parental figures. It isn’t long before Lewis discovers something is wrong with the house, judging from Jonathan’s night-time excursions with an ax, trying to get something to come out of the walls. Eventually, Jonathan and Florence disclose their true natures to the child, as well as the mystery of what they’re trying to find, left behind by the deceased previous owner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan).
Roth’s sentiments with House lie somewhere between the goofiness of Hocus Pocus (1993) and the troubling darkness of Nicolas Roeg’s take on Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). Jack Black, once more donning his overblown, manic persona, fares better here as a blimpy warlock than as a hapless rendition of author R.L. Stine in the Goosebumps (2015) franchise, which utterly fails to walk the difficult line between nonsensical and disconcerting.
The more fascinating revelation is two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett as the merrily mauve witch next door (reminiscent of the Lavender Menace, the overabundance of purple does put one in mind of the color’s queer associations). Adding her usual gravitas to what could have easily been an empty-headed role, Blanchett adds the sort of grace Ingrid Bergman did to the 1973 adaptation of The Hideaways (aka The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the popular novel by E.L. Konigsburg). Of course, flashes of Roth’s sensibilities do tend to break through, particularly with the backstory involving the wartime exploits of Kyle MacLachlan’s Isaac Izard, where a demon in the Black Woods is the culprit for his dark desires.
Newcomer Owen Vaccaro is given room to be more emotionally extravagant than one would expect from an Eli Roth picture, YA or not, and as such allows for several moments of empathy from the orphaned child, left behind with nothing but a magic 8-ball with which to communicate and reflect upon (Roth’s wife Lorenza Izzo is on hand for some phantom maternal visitations).
More charming and sweetly calibrated than one might expect, the sensibilities of The House with a Clock in Its Walls seem more inclined to push the nostalgia button for adults whose imaginations were energized by narratives of this nature as children, while modern youthful generations will most likely be bored by its lack of sensationalism. Either way, it’s a welcome change of pace from Roth, who shows a dimensionality previously undetected.