Please note that all framegrabs are from the 1080p version
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan
screenplay by Eric Kripke, based on the novel by John Bellairs
directed by Eli Roth
by Bryant Frazer What happens when Hollywood's foremost torture-porn impresario channels his inner child and goes into business with Amblin Entertainment as a director-for-hire on a kid-friendly adaptation of a young-adult thriller from the early-1970s? Well, you get something like Eli Roth's The House with a Clock in Its Walls--nobody's idea of an innovative masterpiece, but at least an unpretentious, lavishly-designed, and mischievously-executed spookshow. Adapted by "Supernatural" creator Eric Kripke from a novel written by John Bellairs and illustrated by none other than Edward Gorey, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is one of those sad-orphan-is-sent-away-to-live-with-a-distant-relative yarns that begins with a young boy's arrival in an unfamiliar city. Naturally, he becomes privy to magical goings-on that open a window on the wider, more dangerous world before him.
The orphan in question is Lewis Barnavelt, played by 12-year-old Owen Vaccaro, who rocks aviator goggles with an awkward, aloof demeanour, almost like he made a wrong turn out of a Wes Anderson film. His new foster parent, the sorcerer Uncle Jonathan, is embodied in a braggadocious turn by Jack Black, partly channelling Orson Welles in late-career magician mode. Balancing Black's larger-than-life presence is the more classically theatrical refinement of Cate Blanchett, giving a precisely-calibrated performance as Florence, the witch next door. Dressed always in purple and adopting a slightly backward-leaning posture that feels wittily suggestive of the original Gorey drawings, Blanchett dominates every scene in which she appears. Over the course of the film, Lewis, Jonathan, and Florence overcome their own fears and insecurities to evolve into a new surrogate family. Heart-warming, sure. But The House with a Clock in Its Walls also has an evil wizard, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who schemes to wipe the human race off the face of the planet by turning time back to the Pleistocene Era; the titular clock thus functions as a doomsday machine that can bring his master plan to fruition. Unfortunately for Isaac, he's long dead. He has, however, a partner in the endeavour, his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a compellingly wicked shape-shifter who manipulates budding-magician Lewis into bringing Isaac back to life--and turning the house against the Barnavelts.
With Roth in charge, the tone can best be described as "hard PG," a fairly bracing development for a film that at first appears to be content with ordinary Harry Potter-esque whimsies like stained-glass windows that hold moving pictures, a Magic 8-Ball that conveys advice from Lewis's dead parents, or a sentient, overstuffed armchair that becomes the movie's mascot. ("The house likes you," Uncle Jonathan assures Lewis at one point.) Midnight visits to cemeteries may be par for the course, but this one throws in pentagram-centric rituals and depictions of the demon Azazel, Isaac Izard is shown to suffer from World War II PTSD, and there are barely-shrouded Holocaust references. Though some viewers may find this inappropriate or exploitative, I feel kids films should tackle dark topics; cinema is a safe-enough space for first encounters with the rough stuff. Roth does seem a little self-conscious about this in reaching for scatological humour designed to elicit guffaws from the grade-school set. The topiary griffin in the Barnavelts' garden may be suggested by Gorey's illustrations, but the giant dumps it takes on screen are not. In a similar vein, the film's climax features a literal man-baby who pisses on everything. That moment is either The House with a Clock in Its Walls' vulgar nadir or its surreal apotheosis, I can't decide which.
Other creepy bits are nicely realized on screen. A menagerie of puppets and automatons, including at least one specimen--a clown scribbling at a desk--from Steven Spielberg's own collection, fits right in with the idea of the old house functioning partly as a junk-filled magic shop, and a small army of vicious, puking jack-o'-lanterns guarding the front stoop conjures a comfy, Halloween-y feeling. The action is elevated somewhat by the performances--it's interesting to see Jack Black try adulthood on for size in a role as a reluctant father figure, and Blanchett really gives it her all, meeting modest action-hero demands with a resolute, subtly comic physicality. Vaccaro is a cute kid and an unself-conscious screamer, which comes in handy. In fact, the single biggest mistake screenwriter Kripke makes is probably that he fails to give MacLachlan and Goldsberry, who are likewise terrific actors, enough to do in the back half of the film.
Even if its story bores you silly, there's always something to look at in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. DP Rogier Stoffers knows his way around a set, lighting the Barnavelt house interiors in a way that brings out every possible shade of red, green, brown, and burnished gold and casts the proper light on the impeccably-detailed work of production designer John Hutman and his art department. As a grace note, Roth strove to use practical effects rather than computer-generated cartoonery when possible. That doesn't necessarily make the final showdown between good and evil, set precariously amidst the inner workings of an apparently gigantic clock, much less redolent of any number of CG-laden action-adventures from the past 30 years. Yet there's something genuine about the extra effort that gives the picture a warmth that's missing from some of its more lavishly-budgeted contemporaries.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Universal's 2.39:1, 2160p UHD BD transfer of The House with a Clock in Its Walls is truly beautiful, drawing plenty of fine detail out of the 2K theatrical DI and accenting, in particular, DP Stoffers's high-contrast work inside the house itself. Much of the film takes place under dimly-lit or otherwise moody conditions, and the subtleties of those images are brilliantly represented here, especially where the expanded HDR10 colour gamut reproduces a luscious range of colours--blues and purples, especially--not only through the expected highlights, but across the midrange and reaching into the shadows as well. The illusion of depth is terrific; when an apparition of Lewis's dead mother (Lorenza Izzo) visits him in his bedroom, she's lit to stand out from the background of the scene and positively glows in the HDR version. As you'd expect from a digitally-acquired feature, grain and noise are essentially nonexistent and any artifacting is invisible under normal viewing conditions. Matching the visuals, the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core of the Dolby Atmos track is rich and aggressive, with liberal use of the rear surrounds allowing sound designer Karen Baker Landers's otherworldly ticking-clock sound effects--generated with a Gretsch electric guitar!--to come at you from every angle. I have zero complaints about the A/V presentation.
The attendant parcel of supplements is substantial, though they're spread out across the two discs. The UHD platter carries an audio commentary with Roth and Black that goes strangely unbilled on the packaging. While it's not great if you're looking for a lot of details or anecdotes, Roth at least discusses his inspirations. (These include Time Bandits, Blade Runner, and "Street of Crocodiles", alongside Amblin Entertainment's 1980s catalogue.) The director does seem a little surprised at just how sanitized PG-rated fare is expected to be these days, remembering unexpected complaints from test audiences that pentangles were not appropriate in a children's film and describing two small cuts he says were made to the UK release. In a sign of the times, the duo even jokes about the diminished audience for physical media. "How many people out there still buy and watch DVDs, and then how many of those actually take time to watch the DVD commentary?" Black asks. Roth's response: "The people who are reviewing them for dvdcommentary.com." A slate of nine mostly fragmentary deleted scenes (9 mins.) is a mixed bag; all of the material is inessential, but some of it is fun, most notably a visual gag where Lewis tries to follow some spiralling text in one of Uncle Jonathan's magical tomes and ends up turning the room upside-down. Additionally, both an alternate opening and ending (6 mins.) prove expendable. The elided feel-good ending is truly superfluous, and much of the footage from the original opening survives as a flashback. All of the deleted footage is playable with or without Roth/Black commentary. Rounding out the UHD disc is a 4-minute gag reel.
For the real treasure trove of B-roll and talking-head interviews, you have to go to the BD. It contains all of the above as well as a heaping helping of standard-issue studio promo features that have been arranged in a few different categories. First up is "Warlocks and Witches," comprising four shorts focusing on different members of the cast: "Finding Lewis" (2 mins.) on Vaccaro, "Jack's Magical Journey" (3 mins.) on Black, "The Great Cate" (2 mins.) on Blanchett, and "The Terrifying Isaac Izard" (2 mins.) on MacLachlan. It's "Mutual Admiration Society: The Movie," as each performer steps briefly into the spotlight to soak up the adulation of their peers. The substantial behind-the-scenes material gets collected under the heading of "Movie Magic." With the help of Hutman and set decorator Ellen Brill, Roth offers a tour of the main set in "The Ultimate Haunted House" (2 mins.), while "Automatons Attack" (2 mins.) features glimpses of the visible green-suit guys and puppeteers who stood in for and/or controlled the film's small army of robotic creeps. The amusing "Pumpkin Puke" (2 mins.) sees Blanchett describing the jack-o'-lantern attack scene as "endless and disgusting," "Moving Pieces" (1 min.) covers the clock-room set built for the big finish, and last but certainly not least, "Baby Jack" (2 mins.) provides a closer look at the prosthetic Jack Black baby that figures in the movie's climax--for my money, a strong case for creature and make-up FX designer Adrien Morot (who also made the infant for mother!) deserving an Oscar.
"Eli Roth: Director's Journals" (7 mins.) is a short suite of six dispatches from the set in which the director addresses the camera directly; they're notable more as contemporaneous glimpses behind the scenes than for their informational content. The same goes for "Owen Goes Behind the Scenes" (4 mins.), in which Vaccaro shoots four segments of his own backstage doc with a GoPro. A few more promotional videos are deployed to underscore the supposed cheeky irreverence of the cast. We get "Theme Song Challenge" (3 mins.), wherein Roth, Black, MacLachlan, Vaccaro, and Izzo improvise a goofy theme song for the film, complete with lyrics; "Abracadabra!" (1 min.), in which Roth performs a card trick, kind of, for Vaccaro; "Jack Black's Greatest Fear" (1 min.), documenting that time when Roth and Vaccaro had a goat hidden in Black's trailer; and "Do You Know Jack Black?" (4 mins.), a game-show style segment wherein Black challenges Vaccaro, MacLachlan, and Izzo to answer questions about his career. ("Do You Know Kyle MacLachlan?" probably would have been more fun.) Nestled in among these standalone features is the more serious "The Mighty Wurlitzer" (2 mins.), bringing composer Nathan Barr on screen to discuss the 1920s-vintage pipe organ he restored and installed in a Tarzana, CA recording studio. (It's heard on the movie's soundtrack.) Finally, there are short previews for Mary and the Witch's Flower and Johnny English Strikes Again, although none for The House with a Clock in Its Walls itself.