Less than six months after his Death Wish remake, Eli Roth is back with a kids’ film. The whiplash effect is undeniable, but the film’s best moments prove that this combination of director and material does, at times, makes a sort of sense.
The film follows Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a teenager who moves in with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) after his parents die in a car crash. It’s the 50s, but even then, the uncle’s mansion seems like an unusual place to live. As soon as Lewis steps in the hallway, the furniture moves on its own behind him, and the painted portraits turn their heads. The intimidating Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, great as ever but underused), Jonathan’s neighbour, simply looks like a witch. And at night, one can hear loud, banging noises in the walls — the ticking of the titular clock. Roth treats his viewers as smart children, versed in movie logic: they can tell the house is magic, and he doesn’t waste their time.
This self-awareness makes for amusing moments — as when we cut from an ominous plot development, to a shot of Lewis looking up the word ‘foreboding’ in the dictionary. But a knowing joke is a double-edged sword that can create great ephemeral effect, while standing in the way of more earnest aspirations. This is sharply felt at the end, where narrative strands feel forcefully tied into one meaningful knot; like many kids’ films, this one is about the importance of staying true to oneself. It also respectfully but awkwardly addresses the trauma of WWII via the figure of Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a warlock turned evil after his return from combat. Roth does not exactly stick the landing, and his bland visual style makes him seem detached.
But this apparent indifference makes the film’s scarier moments feel all the more unpredictable — you never know what Eli Roth is capable of. The limits of the genre (un)fortunately hinder his ability to create true terror, but this doesn’t stop him from including a reference to The Shining, and creepy dolls to haunt our dreams.