Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: "The House with a Clock in Its Walls"

“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a little bit of a lot of things -- none of which work all that well.

It’s a kids-do-magic fantasy adventure in the vein of Harry Potter; a redemptive tale about an orphan growing up fast; a comedic lark with over-the-top characters; a creature feature with plenty of colorful/gross critters; and a few other odd ends.

It’s a little funny, a little scary -- probably too frightening for small children, despite its PG rating -- a little magical, and a little dull at times.

This film is directed by Eli Roth, known for getting his start making the hardest of hardcore horror: “Hostel,” “Cabin Fever.” It’s pretty hilarious that he’s now doing a family-friendly scare romp. Eric Kripke provided the script.

Based on the classic novel by John Bellairs, unread by me, it stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year-old who arrives in fictional New Zebedee, Mich., in 1955 after the death of his parents. He is to live with his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), the self-described “black swan” of the family. He wears an impressive pompadour, a fixed, unnerving smile and a kimono.

Owen moves into the home at 100 High St., a dilapidated old mansion filled with clocks, weird antiques, stained glass windows that tend to change shape, creepy mannequins and other essentials of any decent haunted house.

Another permanent fixture is Mrs. Zimmerman (no first name is every supplied), the haughty but likable next-door neighbor who apparently spends all her time at Jonathan’s place. She and Jonathan exchange a steady stream of insults like old marrieds, but insist their relationship is platonic.

It doesn’t take long for Owen to figure out that his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman are warlock and witch, respectively. He insists they teach him magic, too, and they resist for about five seconds before turning Dumbledore on them. Soon Owen is doing spells to spray the bully at school in the face with the water fountain. Good times.

The previous owner of the house was one Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a great magician and Jonathan’s former partner. (In the movie’s telling, many stage magicians are in fact real warlocks and witches who use the cover to pay their bills.) His craft turned decidedly dark after some horrible experiences in the war, and he died after attempting the foulest of spells.

Of course, in these types of movies, death is often just a temporary phase.

I liked Black as the monumentally self-pleased warlock, who has a surfeit of confidence and yet has no hesitation in dubbing Zimmerman a far superior magic user. The shtick got a little old after a while, though.

The movie follows Owen on his adventures at school for a time, especially his budding friendship with Tarby (Sunny Suljic), a popular jock temporarily laid up with a broken arm. But the relationship takes a turn for no good reason other than to service the plot.

There are some amusing and scary sequences that are memorable. I particularly liked a battle with enchanted Jack-o’-lanterns that gets satisfyingly gooey.

I can’t recommend this movie -- I didn’t even like it enough to bother writing out the whole title again. It’s too creepy for really small children, while those over age 10 will probably deem it kiddie fare. It’s not terrible, but it did not cast a spell on me.

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