'House with a Clock in its Walls' Review, or When the Passion in a Passion Project Never Materializes Onscreen
Let’s clear up a few immediate misconceptions that you might have about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which has gone essentially completely unadvertised and you may only have stumbled upon a few snippets of info about it.
First, if all you’ve heard of is its name, you might be thinking, oh, that sounds like a subtle atmospheric horror movie. Or an unsubtle one. Maybe some VC Andrews type of tale where there are hidden hallways in this guilt-ridden Victorian mansion where your evil uncle used to hold seances with his secret family that he started by banging his sister’s hideously deformed twin.
Or, you know, maybe you thought something less specific.
But no, this film is directed by Eli Roth, so you’re way off base. Alright, now we’re in a different mind space. The house in question is obviously going to have a torture basement. It’s going to be unsubtle, nauseating, and completely unnecessary on every level. You are anticipating being bored out of your mind, wading through a gratuitous exposition of boobs and arterial spray in hopes that the eventual reveal of the clock in question will somehow be interesting. It won’t be. It’ll just be a more elaborate way of torturing unnamed nude WB castoffs in Roth’s continued desperation to shock that any number of therapists would be more than willing to discuss with him.
But no, Bear Jew’s latest effort is rated PG. Yes, you read that correctly.
And it’s written by Eric Kripke, the guy who created Supernatural. Seriously what is going on here?
Once upon a time in the seventies, there was a series of books featuring magic and the adventures of children. Originally it was just a trilogy, and the author John Bellairs died all too young, of cardiofuckery in his early fifties. Another author (Brad Strickland) picked up his outlines in the nineties and wrote another nine of them over the last twenty years. The stories were based in a small Michigan town, the eponymous house inspired by one that stood ominously in the author’s hometown, where he lived until he died.
You can almost smell the old paperbacks inevitably born out of that, can’t you? Can almost see the low slung small town houses crouched in the late autumn chill, hear the rasp of dead leaves blowing along the pavement in twilight wind? A flash of distant headlights blinding you, the smell of wood burning in fireplaces carried to you on a wavering breeze, the clattering echo of a family in one of those houses made tinny by the sheer size of the midwestern night and the dome of stars over your head. Even as a kid, you knew there were monsters out there in that darkness, that the comfort of home and family was under an invisible siege, the walls of that house thin as a stretching balloon against the cold and darkness of the night.
And a bunch of people read those novels that have mostly disappeared from consciousness. Eli Roth must have, hate or love his work, he is well known and successful at precisely what he does, and making a kid’s movie based on a barely remembered novel from the seventies is not something he needs to do unless he wants to. Kripke is in a similar place, and he’s talked now at length about how the original book The House with a Clock in its Walls was his favorite novel growing up as a kid and that it inspired much of what Supernatural became. That’s not say that you as a viewer will notice anything more than the curious similarities: the small town Midwest, the dropping of a few familiar names like Azazel.
But there’s something beautiful about people coming together and making art out of something they loved as children. Trying to use their own particular medium to show children something they once loved, to rekindle that spark for a new generation. They do it without cynicism, without a cash grab wink at the adults in the audience. Passion projects are fragile things though. Empathy makes you smile, from knowing you’re seeing what someone has lovingly sculpted. But you can never quite put yourself in exactly their position, can’t see it with their eyes. Because no matter how skilled they are, their view of the work will always be through the eyes of the child they were.
And so there’s a sadness too in watching movies like The House with a Clock in Its Walls. You want it to be good, are rooting for the makers of the film to transcend the source material and show you what it is that so inspired them all those decades ago. And it fails on that front. Films like that almost always do.
But it’s a perfectly charming movie, one that kids enjoy while their parents aren’t bored, even if they aren’t nearly as charmed by it. It’ll make its budget back and the hoped for series will never happen when the movie’s forgotten within a month even by those who enjoyed it just fine. And maybe a few kids will find themselves given the old novels and discover the power that Roth and Kripke did once upon a time.
Header Image Source: Universal