Director: Eli Roth.
What a minute... Eli Roth? Thee Eli Roth, the Eli Roth, known for violent slasher horrors who gave us Cabin Fever, Hostel and contributed to Grindhouse? Not forgetting to mention the uncredited direction for Inglourious Basterds. Now directing what looks like a dark family film that initially made me think of a live action version of Monster House. But, instead it’s like a Tim Burton fantasy meshed with Guillermo del Toro with a hint of The Addams Family. It’s a first of many for Eli Roth, being his film not to receive an adult rating, his first to based on literature and his first family film.
The story is based on John Bellairs’ 1973 titular, gothic mystery novel written for children that received favourable reviews across the industry and readers, managing to bring creepy and comfort together much like how Scooby-Doo does. It is a wonder how the book hasn’t already been made into a movie before falling into Roth’s lap. But what isn’t surprising, is Roth’s admiration and aspiration to make a family film like the films he grew up watching; like Beetlejuice, Gremlins and The Goonies. When interviewed by Vulture.com Roth comments about how he’s always wanted to make a kid’s movie, but his way, with elements from his pass films obviously evident in this.
I can’t forget to mention Eric Kripke, the screenwriter who not only is a great fan of the books growing up, buying the rights and making this a dream project of his; he was also the creator of the long running TV series, Supernatural, writing a few sneaky Easter eggs into the film himself. However, Kripke commented in a Collider.com interview that his beloved book was painstaking difficult to adapt; a supposedly easy going and malleable story. But certain elements have to change whilst keeping as much of the core and tone intact which I believe this visualisation achieved.
The story is set in the mid 1950s America where our young hero, Lewis (Vaccaro), is sent to live with his zany Uncle Jonathan (Black) in what appears to be a magical and haunted house. As it turns out, Uncle Jonathan is little more than just your typical local eccentric and is actually a decent yet fairish warlock trying to find a clock hidden within the walls of the house, with the help of their friendly and almost librarian-like neighbour Florence Zimmerman. A long serving, loyal friend of Uncle Jonathan and by all accounts, a great witch.
Vaccaro, of Daddy’s Home fame does a fine performance as the sweet, innocent and geeky kid trying to fit into his new surroundings. Black is his usual flamboyant, childish self being the epitome of a big kid, but is always such a loveable character. Even if he has an odd sense of fashion and strangely looks like my Auntie. Uncle Jonathan actually reminded me a lot of John Candy’s Uncle Buck. Blanchett is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses, which might be a surprise for not having just walked out in limelight. But her character her is eloquent, funny yet provides good emotional substance to the story. You could almost liken her to Mary Poppins. What does appear to be quite evident, is that the entire cast look like they had tremendous fun making this film, and I believe this translates onto the screen.
We really shouldn’t even mention Harry Potter here, but it’s difficult not to sharing a number of similarities. However, we have to remind ourselves this story came about long before J.K. Rowling was getting busy scribing in coffee shops. It certainly howls at the same audiences that love Potter, but this shouldn’t put Potter haters off seeing this, as it’s very much it’s own film. Remember, this is Eli Roth at the helm so there’s those little shocking bits in there for his fans too.
The production, whilst absurd, is creative, amusing and superbly done with enough elements to keeps viewers entertained throughout. From lion shaped topiaries, animated stain glass windows to ghastly puppets and a pet armchair among the many. However, there’s nothing that’s incredible outstanding and whilst probably being very original, it feels like we’ve seen it all before. Same goes for the wardrobe and even Nathan Barr’s score. It’s all very fitting but feels borrowed and the score; a score that is great for this genre, being very fairground and haunted adventure, it
just lacks any great theme.
Whilst initially being shocked at the choice of director, I wasn’t shock at the final result and was overall pleased with the direction Roth, and Kripke had gone in. It’s a fun and enjoyable film that’s perfect for its target audience and it makes me understand why Amblin would get behind this. The book is the first of twelve books that follow the adventures of Lewis Barnavelt, so could this be an attempt by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment to launch a whole new franchise? Does this warrant a sequel and maybe an entire series?
Running Time: 7
The Cast: 8
Job Description: 7
The Extra Bonus Point: 0