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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Review: Gothic and scary, with a funny-bone

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Review: Gothic and scary, with a funny-bone

Everybody loves a good mystery. Well, almost everybody. If there is magic in it and prodigious children, they love it even more. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a magical story about warlocks and witches, children and childish innocence. It has, at its centre, a house that enjoys a position of its own. Hidden inside its walls somewhere is a clock that keeps ticking, and it is no ordinary clock. In fact, it is running a countdown to Doomsday. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is good fun, albeit not great fun.

Back in 1955, when The Alamo is running in picture-houses, a ten-year-old orphan Lewis Barnavelt goes to New Zebedee, Michigan, in a bus, to live with his maternal uncle Jonathan, who he has never seen or met. Jonathan’s house is a creaky old mansion which has a mysterious ticking ‘heart’ that makes clock-like sounds. Lewis only wants to go to school and have a normal childhood, but soon discovers that his stay at the new home will be anything but normal. Uncle Jonathan is, in fact, a mediocre but well-intentioned warlock (wizard/magician), while his next-door neighbour and good friend Florence Zimmerman is a far more powerful, but good, well-intentioned witch. Jonathan was thrown out of their house by his father, who did not take kindly to his indulgences, and he never went back.

The house that Lewis has just moved into was previously owned by Isaac and Selena Izard. Izard was Jonathan’s mentor and partner in his magic acts. Before dying, this sinister couple had constructed a powerful clock that is hidden somewhere within the walls of the house, where it ticks eternally, trying to pull the world back into a magical alignment before humans were born, something that would have permitted Isaac to bring about the end of the world. Within this secret world of warlocks and witches, Lewis just wants to make a new friend and impress the popular Tarby Corrigan, but ends up raising a dead body in the local cemetery on Halloween. Who is this revived corpse and what menace will the trio face next?

Author John Bellairs wrote the novel in 1973 as the first of the Lewis Barnavelt series. He said that he wrote thrillers for children because he had the imagination of a ten year-old. Bellairs died in 1991, after writing 15 acclaimed Gothic mystery novels. Since the present adaptation is the first from a series, we can expect a sequel. Like a novel, the film takes some time to get into its groove, but once the plot is established, we are in for some clean fun. Well almost totally clean, but for the size of the mammary glands of a certain female character. Since the sorcery and necromancy is treated as just magic, and based on scriptures and incantations, rather than ghost legends, there is a fun element that is even greater than the abracadabra or hocus-pocus one expects in films of this nature.

Screenplay writer Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Timeless, Boogeyman) retains the point of view of the ten year-old child and deviates only occasionally, when necessary. In one scene, when asked why he does not understand something, the boy replies, “Because I am ten years-old.” Indeed, most goings on cater to the lowest common age denominator of say age 8+, but there is enjoyment to be derived by those who are considerably older.

At 46, director Eli Roth (The Green Inferno, Knock Knock, Death Wish 2018) is in the middle age position, when we look at the ages of the characters, and is able to retain a reasonable amount of interest in the proceedings by swinging both ways like the pendulum of a clock. Casting is a coming together of diverse talents. Jack Black is over the top, while Cate Blanchett is a veteran who comes from the classic school. Owen Vaccaro had proven himself in his recent assignments while Roth has in his ensemble a Chilean actress and a former beauty figure too. Proceedings are on the slower side as the tale takes shape, with the pace redeeming itself in the latter portion. That having been said, the film’s appeal to me was limited, and it could not strike the right chords as the minutes ticked through.

Jack Black (School of Rock, King Kong, Kung Fu Panda, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) is in his element as the warlock, oversized and overdressed, replete with a beard and a moustache. Cate Blanchett (Lord of the Rings, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Babel) as Florence Zimmerman, slim and svelte, can sleepwalk through roles like these. Owen Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home, Mother’s Day, Fun Mom Dinner) has already become a sort of veteran at role in his age bracket within three years. He is now thirteen, to be accurate. Owen has said that he had a blast working with Jack, Kate and Eli, as an apprentice warlock, and why shouldn’t he? Lorenza Izzo (Chilean; I'm Not Crazy, Holidays, Life Itself) had her birthday yesterday, and while wishing her, Owen said, “Couldn’t have asked for a better movie mother!” She’s attractive and a good actress too.

Renée Elise Goldsberry (All About You, Pistol Whipped, Sisters) is the black wife of Izard, with the most revolving role in the movie (revolving, not revolting). She is easy on the eye. Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Don't Worry--He Won't Get Far on Foot, Mid-90s) makes a good spoilt brat, the kind you find so often in public schools. Vanessa Anne Williams (supporting role of a black girl) is sweet, cute and credible. Kyle MacLachlan (The Smell of Success, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, Breathe In) makes a menacing and grimacing Izard (wizard, anyone?), with layers of make-up to make him look real scary. Colleen Camp (American Hustle, She's Funny That Way, Knock Knock) plays the amply endowed neighbour who is not quite what she looks.

In the end, one has to take the EQ value The House with a clock in Its Walls offers, while realising that its appeal to younger audiences might be stronger. It’s average to just above average fare, not really in the must see category. Take the kids along, if you do make it a holiday outing. It is more in the thriller genre than the scary movie category.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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