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Published October 5, 2018

It’s not at all unusual for family films to make use of horror settings and genre conventions. A lot of fantastic family storytelling straddles the line between telling a story for children and telling a horror story with the amount of ‘horror’ employed varying wildly.

From the use of horror characters with little of their usual themes in the Hotel Transylvania franchise, to the heavy use of the genre in Paranorman, even to the use of horror as a device to explore other themes in the recent Goosebumps film, a family film making use of the icons, film-making techniques, or the tension and allegory built into the horror genre is not very hard to find. What’s surprising about The House with A Clock in its Walls isn’t that it makes use of horror to tell a family story, but that it seems more like a horror film made for families.

As the film is directed by Eli Roth, director of 2002’s Cabin Fever, the first two ‘Hostel’ films and the 2015 remake of Knock Knock among others, and has a script adapted from the original John Bellairs novel by Eric Kripke, creator of the Supernatural TV series, it’s not surprising that it would lean more heavily on the horror side of the horror/family mix. But where other films of this type interweave the horror and family stories, often using them to explore the same themes, this film feels like there are two separate stories co-existing, but not always coming together satisfyingly.

The joint themes of hubris, grief and seeking acceptance work together perfectly well, but once the family story reaches its climax, the film loses a bit of momentum as the horror story creates big action set pieces for the film’s finale that are… fine… but ring a little hollow and unengaging.

I’ve always enjoyed Jack Black as an actor and particular enjoy the films where directors make use of his excellent comedic timing without trying get a ‘funny’ scene out of him. Goosebumps and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have both made great use of him and The House with A Clock in its Walls is no different. His scenes with young Owen Vaccaro, playing his nephew Lewis, are excellent and the pair share a remarkably friendly and caring chemistry on the screen.

Cate Blanchett’s presence in this film, however, is an odd one. She’s as good as ever and gives the impression of enjoying herself, but there’s something about her character that almost feels like she belongs in a different film and this is a cross-over event or something. This works within the conceit of the relationship between her and Jack Black’s characters, as they are meant to represent opposites of each other, it’s just odd that you don’t see any other parts of the film that belong on her side of the spectrum. It’s like everything belongs in Jack Black’s world and she’s just wandered in for a visit.

Without giving too much away, Renée Elise Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) and Lorenza Izzo (Knock Knock) both give fantastic performances with wonderful mixes of charm and menace and Kyle MacLachlan clearly has a lot of fun giving the scenery a good chew. The House with A Clock in its Walls is a good time for families, with a nice mix of funny, adventurous and spooky.


The House with A Clock in its Walls is in cinemas now.

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