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JOSEPH CROSS, BRIANA EVIGAN,
Special Effects Make-Up
A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Horror Producer and Director, Eli Roth, wanted to go full 1980s Amblin Entertainment with this one and he succeeded beyond the limits of anything Amblin Entertainment ever did.
Boy did he ever!
But the fact is, you only have to look upon that poster, watch the movie trailer, and know: The movie makers are holding nothing back. They are letting you know exactly what kind of movie this is. Whatever your complaints might be, don't bitch about the nature of the storytelling in this one, regardless of how enamored you are of author John Bellaire's original novels.
Now let's get into it.
This tale follows the oft-repeated norm with such stories, at least as far back as James Whitcomb Riley's 1885 magnum opus, "Little Orphant Annie",
Our hero, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), is an orphan, riding on a bus as he tearfully reads a letter from his Uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black: DEMOLITION MAN, WATERWORLD, THE CABLE GUY, THE FAN, MARS ATTACKS, THE JACKAL, ENEMY OF THE STATE, KING KONG, GOOSEBUMPS) who is taking him in now that his parents are dead.
As you'd expect from Jack Black's presence in any movie since 2000, he hams it up far over what the story calls for. You'd expect that, but you'd be wrong!
Jack Black goes beyond all previous efforts to flutter through jitters and rapid-fire facial mugging to physically enunciate every single vowel of the second. He's far beyond any ham-fisted acting in any movie, TV show, stage play, or Open Mike Comedy Night I've ever seen performed by anyone in my life.
And I've even watched Jack Black movies!
Uncle Lewis has a constant platonic companion in his home, his "next-door-neighbor", Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett: THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, THE GIFT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS [all], INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, THE HOBBIT [all], THOR: RAGNAROK). The two affectionately bicker in what fails to pass for snappy repartee.
Cate does her level best to keep up with Jack's histrionics, no doubt with the encouragement of Director Eli Roth not wanting everyone to be swamped by Black's domination, but that's a losing battle.
Cate is a profound actress capable of an amazing variety of roles and characterization. She can believably play a fragile mousey woman in one role, then a creepily cold villain in the next. She can be a gallant lead hero and she can be a raving crackpot.
Jack Black, on the other hand, is our era's Joe E. Brown, and can only be himself. Everything must stop when Jack howls.
Their neighbor across the street, the long suffering Mrs. Hanchett (Colleen Camp: DEATH GAME, CAT IN THE CAGE, THE SEDUCTION, DEADLY GAMES, TRIAL BY TERROR, CLUE, TRACK 29, WICKED STEPMOTHER, SLIVER, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, SECOND TO DIE, PSYCHE:9, KNOCK KNOCK), endures Uncle Lewis' Saxophone racket at 3:00am, the only time he can feel his muse, but wishes he would stop.
Recall that I said Eli Roth wanted to make a 1980s children's Horror movie? Well there's no Horror. However, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is infused with so much damn 1980s Amblin nostalgia, which itself romanticizes 1940s through 1960s nostalgia - Steven Spielberg's childhood - that the sappy sugar rush feels palpable.
All of the most self-indulgent Spielbergian tropes are here, including the rainbow of oily SFX slickness that smeared itself onto the careers of Joe Dante, Roger Zemekis, and Chris Columbus.
THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS exists in the town where Spielberg's AMAZING STORIES took place on TV. An alternate earth where all of the same historical problems exist, except in Roth's version of Spielberg, this 1950s-style earth never had to deal with a Civil Rights movement, as all races are freely integrated.
Well except for that whole horrific World War II thing and that is the nut of this story.
A villainous nut named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan: DUNE, BLUE VELVET, THE HIDDEN, TWIN PEAKS [TV - 1990], TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, ROSWELL, VAULT OF HORROR I, THE TRIGGER EFFECT, Jack Higgen's THE WINDSOR PROTOCOL, THUNDER POINT, THE SPRING, XCHANGE, TWIN PEAKS: THE MISSING PIECES, TWIN PEAKS [TV - 2017]), may have been good once, but was turned by the Horrors he witnessed in WW2. Isaac recreated the house that Uncle Jonathan lives in and now shares with nephew Lewis.
Part of that remodeling included building a clock somewhere within the walls of the house for reasons that Uncle Jonathan suspects are nefarious.
Of course now the evil Isaac and his equally wicked wife, Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry: ALTERED CARBON [TV]), are dead.
Or ARE they?
In Spielbergian: Zemekis fashion, Lewis goes to school to hone his character development, makes friends and enemies, as well as possible side streets into first love.
I wanted it to be better, like childhood through a Stephen King lens, which this movie called for, but this is all filler and feels like it.
Lewis wants to make friends, sort of but not really. His sketchy buddy potential is Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic: THE UNSPOKEN, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER), a kid who dresses like a greaser and is running for class president. The two boys appear to halfheartedly pursue their friendship while Tarby appears to have a stronger bond with the school bully Woody Mingo (Braxton Bjerken). A third classmate and Standby Sequel Character in this movie, Rose Rita Pottinger (Vanessa Anne Williams) watches Lewis approvingly, but distantly. Her character is never developed.
Standby Sequel Characters are a recent development in Cinema, now that Marvel has proved that successful movie franchises can actually work, but only if each movie is given care and consideration.
Lewis doesn't really need friends to motivate his actions, as he is chiefly concerned with becoming a magician like his Uncle Jonathan and Florence. Well that and how much he's missing his dead Mom (curiously not his Pop - at all - the why is never explored).
Only his Mom (Lorenza Izzo: AFTERSHOCKS, THE GREEN INFERNO, THE STRANGER, KNOCK KNOCK) comes to visit him in dreams.
Or ARE they dreams?
THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is suffused with an endless assortment of practical SFX and CGI from start to finish, making its $42 million dollar budget suspect. I'm used to seeing movies with this much computer animated gargantua costing twice as much and more. The producers must have satisfied themselves with million dollar paydays instead of multi-million dollar checks.
Speaking of Producers, Eric Kripke (BOOGEYMAN , SUPERNATURAL [TV], GHOSTFACERS [TV], THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, SUPERNATURAL: THE ANIMATION [TV], HAUNTED , REVOLUTION [TV]), also wrote this.
All of these fine folks wanted to make a children's movie, yet none of them are children.
Well duh, yeah? But there's a key point here. What's missing right up front in this movie is the adult maturity that legendary children's TV and movies always have in everything from Television's Sesame Street to Jim Hensons' The Muppet Show (and movies), to Disney and Pixar movies.
Even in TV shows from THE ADDAMS FAMILY to THE MUNSTERS, this was recognized as being necessary and not just because adults were in the audience. Children's movies require the balance of a full world and Spielberg never exempted himself from this either, as we witnessed in movies like E.T.
Unfortunately, Joe Dante did exempt himself in movies like Explorers, Innerspace, Matinee, Small Soldiers, and Loony Tunes: Back In Action, and those movies as well as Joe Dante's career all suffered for it (hopefully the Joe who brought us THE HOWLING will return one day).
So THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS, is over-the-top, ham-fisted, and likely too 1990s "Nickelodeon" even for Nickelodeon. My summation includes a hideously blowsy movie score (Nathan Barr: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3, CABIN FEVER, CLUB DREAD, DEATH VALLEY, 2001 MANIACS, HOSTEL, RISE: BLOOD HUNTER, SHUTTER, LOST BOYS: THE TRIBE, TORTURED, OPEN HOUSE, THE LAST EXORCISM, TRUE BLOOD [TV], HEMLOCK GROVE [TV], FLATLINERS ) awkwardly grafted into every frame to fill in for the absent emotion and wonder of any given moment that simply isn't visible on screen.
That's not to say Barr's score is bad. Hell, it could be Beethoven, but I'd never know it because it's chopped up into 5 and 10 second musical sting sound bites, so I never got the chance to hear it carry through on its own.
Yet all that is academic if its target audience, kids up to the age of 8, adore it, and nobody is really going to know that until THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS hits the home video market.
Since that age group isn't my likely audience, I give this two Shriek Girls for the adults who may have to suffer through this with the tykes.
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