This Is a Movie Review: There Are Spurts of Cinematic Magic Within ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Copyright: © 2018 Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldberry, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Colleen Camp

Director: Eli Roth

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG for Children in Danger and Creepy, Occasionally Macabre, Magic

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Despite some spirited performances and thorough production design and effects work, The House with a Clock in Its Walls ultimately feels rather perfunctory. But would I have this way if I saw it for the first time when I was eight years old, or would I have instead been truly excited? And as a PG-rated fantasy flick, perhaps we should primarily be asking what pre-teens will think about it. But maybe we should also be asking if it is good enough for them to continue to cherish it (beyond nostalgia value) as they grow older.

There is definitely plenty in here for kids to identify or empathize with, as recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) makes his way to his uncle’s house in New Zebedee, Michigan. Any youngsters who have ever struggled to fit in – whether because of a new school, a weird new home, cruel classmates, or whatever else – will be able to see themselves in Lewis, and that shouldn’t be discounted. But beyond his fashion signature of goggles based on his favorite sci-fi TV show, he doesn’t have the most memorable personality.

Luckily, the adults around Lewis do make more of a lasting impact. Jack Black leans into his bumbling side as Uncle Jonathan, a warlock who constantly downplays his own abilities, perhaps to his detriment. His neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett) is a much more regal magical presence. Black and Blanchett have decent platonic chemistry, with their insistence that they are nothing more than friends never undercut by their repartee. As Jonathan’s sinister former partner Isaac, Kyle MacLachlan displays plenty of charisma despite working under mounds of makeup. And the house itself, in which the furniture acts like a pack of friendly dogs, is fun enough, with director Eli Roth demonstrating his knack for rendering fully realized, character-rich settings (but obviously more kid-friendly than what we’re used to from him). But at the end, you’re liable to be left thinking, “Welp, that all happened.” The stakes are apocalyptic, but they never feel that dire. Lewis saves the day, and that’s nice and all, but there could have been more zip and zaniness.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is Recommended If You Like: The Pagemaster, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The NeverEnding Story

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Magic Keys

This is a Movie Review: ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is Disturbingly Unforgettable Horror From the Director of ‘The Lobster’

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CREDIT: Jima (Atsushi Nishijima)/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman, Bill Camp, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Bluntly Presented Gore and Nudity

Release Date: October 20, 2017 (Limited)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ specialty as a writer and a director of actors is strange and disturbing dialogue delivered bluntly and clinically. Given the setting and characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it makes a kind of sense that this behavior is typical (due to a combination of professional desensitization and psychopathy), but it is never not unnerving. It works to provide a sense of foreboding for what initially presents itself as a slice-of-life tale that will soon give way to a domestic thriller. But really, what we are being primed for is much more sinister and much more terrifying and in fact qualifies as full-on horror.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a cardiac surgeon who takes under his wing Martin (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a patient who died on his operating table. Martin seems interested in medicine himself, spending significant amounts of time shadowing Steven in the hospital. Steven invites him over to the house for dinner, where he charms his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), becomes friendly with his son Bob (Sunny Suljic), and grows romantic with his daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffey Cassidy). The Murphys seem to notice Martin’s odd behavior, but they never fully acknowledge it. For a while, it seems that this film is just taking place in a world of lunacy, where announcing statements like “our daughter just started menstruating last week” are perfectly natural to declare in public. But once Steven recoils at Martin’s mom’s (Alicia Silverstone) attempt to seduce him by aggressively licking his fingers, it becomes clear that this is terrifying for both the audience and the Murphys.

The foreboding is realized hard and unsettlingly, as Bob and then Kim become paralyzed from the waist down without any clear physical explanation. Martin reveals in great detail to Steven what is going on, apparently confirming that he is the source of this ailment. He could be poisoning them, but it is so supernatural that “hex” or “plague” would be a better word. The obvious motivation here is revenge for the death of his father, but Martin’s unflappably flat speaking voice makes it impossible to get a perfect read on him. Lanthimos may or may not be speaking in metaphors; if so, I am not sure what the message is, but if not, the film is disturbing enough that it works on its own terms.

Ultimately, though, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might end up too untethered from its starting point to be an unqualified success. Indeed, it begins to lose me around the point that Steven is firing a shotgun at his family with a bag over his head. That particular scene – and others like it – are filled with fantastic tension, but they feel like Lanthimos is just filling his thirst for demented horror set pieces instead of focusing on the premise he has already established. Maybe that dissociation is the point, but sometimes the heightening of scares can use a firm direction.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Recommended If You Like: The inexplicableness of The Happening but not the cheesiness, The Lobster, Funny Games

Grade: 3 out of 5 Bleeding Eyeballs