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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Beds Hiding Under the Monster: A Review of ‘The House With a Clock in its Wall’

If you’re a fan of Victorian aesthetics, spooky houses, monsters, sorcery, clocks, curses, the 1950s, theatrical horror, automatons, Cate Blanchett, demonology, stage magicians who are secretly real magicians, more clocks, haunted jack o’ lanterns, necromancy, dictionaries, kids who read dictionaries, kids who wear aviator-goggles even though they’re not real pilots, stained-glass, prosopopoeial furniture, and zombie-wizards, then Eli Roth’s ”The House With a Clock in its Walls” is the movie for you.

Adapted from John Bellairs’s novel, this children’s horror story chronicles the young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) as he moves in with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a strange man who, with the help of his friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) teaches him the art of sorcery. At first, it may seem like a poor clone of “Harry Potter,” but, thanks to its masterful visual style and some key points of innovation, ”The House With a Clock in its Walls” ends up being its own special film. There may not be much that is wholly original in Roth’s picture, but there is enough mixing and matching of the familiar that the final product feels far from redundant.

The center of the film’s success is, in my opinion, its use of magic. Many fantasies today bog themselves down with rules upon rules, definitions upon definitions, in an attempt to quantify everything, often resulting in 300-page treatises on shit that doesn’t matter published in concordance. ”The House With a Clock in its Walls” rejects this method entirely, opting instead for a more abstract, lucid approach to magic, explained in the film when Florence tells Lewis, “magic doesn’t come from the books, it comes from within.” Playing by these rules, the film becomes less like ”Harry Potter,” and more in line with ”Alice in Wonderland,” as Roth doesn’t waste any time explaining things that we don’t really need to understand, just letting magical things happen as they will. Everything is mysterious and unexpected, yet it’s rare that anything feels unearned. Though other stories have taken a similar approach with their fantasy elements, few have embraced it so wholeheartedly as this one.

Unfortunately, this creativity does have its down-side, as the free-thought associative nature does breed some underdeveloped bits which could have used a little more time to breath. It’s not that the other parts don’t belong, but some reorganization probably would have been for the best, especially with some lost opportunities for plant-and-payoff. While the current product is far from bad, with one more pass at the script, this film could have been something really special.
All in all, ”The House With a Clock in its Walls” is a fairly fun, inconsequential little film. If you think this is your kind of picture, you’re probably right; and you should be able to tell off of the trailers with this one. This may not be the most unique film you’ll find, and it’s telling how much easier it is to talk about this one as it relates to more successful stories. It’s not perfect, but the good does outweigh the bad.