Movie review: Gore master Eli Roth's new fantasy flick is warm and sincere

Eli Roth's The House With A Clock In Its Walls stars Jack Black (left), Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro.
Eli Roth's The House With A Clock In Its Walls stars Jack Black (left), Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro.PHOTO: UIP

FANTASY ADVENTURE

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS (PG)

105 minutes / Opens Nov 1 / 3.5 stars

The story: Based on the classic 1973 novel by John Bellairs with illustrations from Edward Gorey, this adaptation retains the original story of orphan Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), who moves in with eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and also meets his equally strange neighbour Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis accidentally starts a chain of events that will bring about the end of the world, unless he finds a way to stop it, using the magic that Jonathan and Florence have taught him.


There is a tendency for family fantasy stories to be buried under a heavy frosting of digital eye-candy and prolonged monster chases - see recent Disney attempt Alice Through The Looking Glass (2016) or The Hobbit film series (2012-2014).

Director Eli Roth - yes, the one behind the gore-tastic Hostel (2005) and The Green Inferno (2013) - wants to turn the clock back to a time when stories were driven by characters, and special effects were created from latex, glue and wires.

And using these techniques, he has fashioned a fun, chuckle-worthy take on the 1973 book of the same name, one that never feels ironic nor a heavy-handed exercise in visual style.

 

That said, Roth does steal a trick or two from the master of cute-creepy, director Tim Burton, and that can be seen in how the creepy home of the title comes alive in the most literal way possible.

It is mostly kid-level anthropomorphisation - anything with a face will of course wake up and greet the innocent bystander - and in a nod to the anarchic kid's television series Pee-wee's Playhouse, things without faces do too.

Surprisingly, the director who specialises in exploitation flicks peopled with characters bound for the meat grinder seems to like the trio at the heart of the story. The portraits of Owen's Lewis, Black's Jonathan and Blanchett's Florence are affectionate.

This tale of good versus evil magic turns on the current fascination with witches and wizards, despite the story being over four decades old. While there are a couple of clever sight gags here - topiary animals come alive, with toilet habits that leave something to be desired - there is a struggle to find a spell-casting scene that does not feel like warmed-over Harry Potter.

But even if this project keeps away from the more blackly comic set-ups with more adult appeal, its kid-oriented approach works. It is warm, without being treacly, and most of all, it is sincere.