From the imagination of gore-meister Eli Roth, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a weirdly charming, delightfully spooky surprise with terrifically zany, witty performances by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. The enchanting fantasy flick casts its charm on 4K Ultra HD with a beautiful HDR10 presentation, a reference-quality Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and an enjoyable set of supplements. The overall UHD package is Recommended. (We have also reviewed the Blu-ray.)
Arguably, the weirdest thing in a movie that features a creepy Victorian house with living furniture that behaves like pets and a pair of magically-talented, eccentric witches is seeing its director as the central hero of a 1950s children's programming. And if that's not weirdly unexpected enough, said director of The House with a Clock in Its Walls is would-be gore-meister Eli Roth. On the one hand, Roth's very brief cameo of the indomitable Comrade Ivan could be viewed as part of his quirky sense of humor, a little wink-wink nod to his fans watching. But on the other hand, one could psychoanalyze a great deal about a filmmaker better known for his gruesome horror flicks who is now trying his hand at family-friendly fare. More surprising still, Roth appears to have been the right pick for this adaptation of the popular 1973 children's horror mystery novel, carefully balancing some of the plot's spookier, occasionally nightmare-inducing aspects with a delightfully cartoonish charm and humor.
Of course, a good deal of the film's charming zaniness and creepy gaiety comes from the witty banter of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. Within an instant, the two as Jonathan Barnavelt and Florence Zimmerman cast a spell that's quite enchanting, convincingly squabbling and throwing quippy insults as though they were lifelong friends. Their back and forth is reminiscent of classic 1940s zany romcoms, which makes sense in a story taking place in the 1950s, but interestingly, their affectionate but purely platonic ribbing is also meant to mask darker secrets, one of which is hidden within the walls of the house, as hinted at in the title. As the story progresses, we slowly learn more about the characters, revealing somewhat complicated individuals still traumatized by the events of WWII. And frankly, this mature and surprisingly touching aspect of Eric Kraipke's script elevates the film, as it opens a dialogue on the importance of confronting and dealing with past trauma.
Solving the mystery of a ticking clock echoing throughout the house is not as particularly engaging as Black and Blanchett, though the reason behind its creation is darkly fascinating for a children's movie, I must admit. However, Jonathan's orphaned nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) setting on his own personal hero's journey to uncover the truth is a genuine joy to watch, revealing a clever, shrewd little lad behind a pernicious curiosity. Through him, we discover not only more about the house and this world of learned magic, but he also sets the stage for everyone to cope with the pain of loss. For Lewis, he desperately wants to be loved and makes friends to the point of making decisions with dangerously horrifying consequences — the usual things kids do when trying to impress others, like raising the dead corpse of a dark magician (Kyle MacLachlan). And still, Roth and his team tie it all together to the central theme of how we respond to loss, either negatively or apathetically.
As someone who is not a fan of Eli Roth's previous efforts, I confess to really enjoying The House with a Clock in Its Walls, as his talents for quirky horror serves this production especially well. Although the more serious moments of the story are not handled with the weight they deserve, Roth nonetheless doesn't undercut them either. They may lack the emotional impact the conversations imply, but at least, they don't entirely fall flat either, still succeeding at conveying their importance, which then, affect the subsequent action. His strongest area is definitely in the second half when the tension and suspense begin to grow and his skill at generating a creepy atmosphere really kicks things into gear. With some truly spectacular practical effects and CG wizardry assisting, Roth keeps his audience on the edge as our trio of spellcasters battles a horde of creepy life-size dolls, a mob of evil jack-o'-lanterns or an evil warlock's nefarious plans. It's a delightfully eerie tale for the whole family.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings The House with a Clock in Its Walls to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a Digital Copy code. When redeeming said code via Universal Redeem or Movies Anywhere, users have access to the 4K HDR10 version with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus. The dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a black, eco-vortex case with a glossy, lightly-embossed slipcover. At startup, the disc goes straight to a menu screen with a static image and music.
The weirdly delightful fantasy flick casts its charming magic on Ultra HD with a lovely and occasionally entrancing HEVC H.265 encode, sporting a minor upgrade over the Blu-ray but not by a great deal. Shot on the Arri Alexa camera systems, capable of up 2.8K resolution and likely mastered to a 2K digital intermediate, the 2160p transfer delivers a welcomed uptick in overall definition and clarity. Viewers can make out the well-defined details in the vintage costuming, surrounding foliage and the beautifully elaborate wood architecture of the house. Facial complexions are a tad more revealing with rosier, more natural looking flesh tones. However, there is the occasional softness here and there, most of which appear in the CG wizardry, and very mild aliasing rears its ugly head along the sharpest edges from time to time. Also, contrast doesn't appear to have gained much of a significant boost, but whites are clean and crisp nonetheless with attractive specular highlights brightening and enlivening some of the eye-catching magic throughout.
Arguably, the best and most appreciable improvement is Rogier Stoffers' colorfully-stylized cinematography, animating the magical bursts light with a wide array of colors. Granted, the difference from its HD SDR counterpart is rather nuanced and subtle, but purples, oranges, yellows, and browns appear richer with a tad more variation between the various shades. Meanwhile, primaries remain sumptuous, especially the flamboyant neon reds of the doomsday clock and the spirited blues in some of the clothing. The 4K HDR10 presentation also boasts enhanced brightness levels, showering the 2.39:1 image with ebony rich blacks. Only, the overall picture is now so strong that it can be difficult to clearly make out some of the background information within the darkest, murkiest corners. It's not always an issue of concern, but it happens enough to be somewhat distracting. (4K HDR10 Video Rating: 82/100)
The magic continues to bewitch fans with a topping, reference-quality Dolby Atmos soundtrack that will make the home theater feel as though it were alive, much like the house itself.
The opening scenes are deceptively peaceful and front-heavy, luring listeners in with Nathan Barr's tranquil music, but once we arrive at Uncle Jonathan's place, the room is suddenly teeming with the subtle noises of an old, creepy Victorian house. For the first quarter of the movie before Lewis learns the truth of the house, the surrounds and overheads are employed with the racket of creaking wood and furniture mysteriously moving all about. As the story progresses with more magic and scares, the entire system erupts into an immersive hemispheric soundfield that places the listener right in the middle of the cosmos, a bevy of flying books, an attack by nightmarish life-size dolls or the inner mechanical workings of a massive doomsday clock.
The front soundstage is continuously wide and highly-engaging as many of those same effects discretely traveling between the three channels and the top heights. Imaging feels expansive with a splendid sense of space, exhibiting crystal-clear clarity within the mid-range, allowing for every high-pitched click, clang and tick-tock to be perfectly heard all around. An occasionally powerful and terrifically responsive low-end provides palpable weight to the imaginative visuals and music. Amid the magical splendor and delightful horrors, vocals are precise and very well-prioritized, making this object-based track a great deal of fun. (Dolby Atmos Audio Rating: 96/100)
While the accompanying Blu-ray contains all the supplemental material, a few bonuses are shared with the Ultra HD, which are explained in-depth below.
4K Ultra HD Disc
Audio Commentary: Director Eli Roth is joined by star Jack Black for this somewhat informative but also amusing conversation on various aspects of the production.
The strangest and weirdest surprise in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a movie all about weirdness and the strange, is that it comes from the imagination of gore-meister Eli Roth, a filmmaker better known for horror and gross-out shocks. Adapted from the popular 1973 children's horror mystery novel, the plot's spookier aspects is carefully balanced with a few nightmare-inducing visuals and a delightfully cartoonish charm, aided by the terrifically zany, witty banter of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. The weirdly delightful fantasy flick casts its charm on 4K Ultra HD with a beautiful HDR10 presentation and a highly-satisfying, reference-quality Dolby Atmos soundtrack. With an average but nonetheless enjoyable set of supplements, the overall UHD package is recommended for fantasy fans everywhere.