Sam’s Take: Spooky fun haunts “The House With a Clock in its Walls”

Illustration by Sammy Newman

Samuel Goodrich
Staff Writer

The first day of fall — aka Halloween season — rolled around early last week. Not only have spooky decorations and fun-sized candy filled the grocery store aisles, but horror films are hitting the box office, capitalizing on Halloween spirit for thrills and chills.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” aims to capture the child-like passion and love for magic and bizarre rituals. While the film will appeal to the oddball children of the world, its attempts to please a wider audience prove to be its largest hurdle.

Set in the 1950s, “The House” follows Lewis Barnavelt, a young boy whose parents recently died in a car accident. He is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan, who turns out to be a warlock living in the titular house. Lewis soon becomes determined to learn magic from Jonathan and their next door neighbor, a once powerful witch named Florence Zimmerman.

Points must be awarded to the set and costume designers who clearly had the time of their lives crafting the house and wardrobe. There are so many eccentric details in the creepy vintage items and gothic architecture.

There’s also a clear love and passion on the part of director Eli Roth, who strays from his normal gory horror affairs to make a fun family film that adores the bizarre and weird. It’s difficult not to see “The House” as a file Roth made for his younger self as the narrative obsesses over hexes, spells, ancient texts and old rituals.

The adult actors also have a blast on camera. Jack Black as Jonathan does his normal man-child routine but adds a bit of flair to keep it from being obnoxious. Cate Blanchett as Florence is exquisite, able to express so much in a simple look or elicit a laugh from a line delivery.

The only actor who drops the ball is Owen Vaccaro as Lewis. Despite being responsible for holding the film together, Vaccaro has poor comedic delivery and is only slightly better in the dramatic moments. While not horrible, his below-average acting distracts the viewer at times.

Similarly falling flat are the film’s bizarre attempts at childish humor. Whenever “The House” stops its fun and engaging plot of magic discovery to show a hedge sculpture explosively poop mulch, it feels forced and just does not work. The same can be said for the side plot where Lewis tries to fit in at school — a plotline audience members outside the target demographic have seen countless times before.

The film is at its best when it simply reveals its love for the creepy, the weird and the dark. In fact, “The House” is not afraid to touch on darker subjects, like divorce or coping with trauma. The main theme tackles how ignoring trauma is harmful, and channeling those emotions into what you love will ultimately be for the best. While not handled as well as in more dramatic films, it’s still nice to see these issues touched upon in children’s media.

In general, I was hoping the movie would play out more like “Coraline” or “Monster House,” where the movie actually becomes scary. This film never goes too dark or intense — a few creepy dolls provide the most thrills. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the movie provides a safe and inviting place to experience the joys of fear that horror media is beloved for.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is a great primer for the Halloween season, for adults and children alike. Its quirky oddness and obsession with magic is endearing and entertaining. The intended audience will have a blast with this film, but adults are sure to see the story beats and twists from a mile away.

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