Well, this is a great start to the Halloween season this year. No better way to kick it off.
I hadn’t heard of the film or the book until I saw the movie trailer and to be frank, the Harry Potteresque music that accompanied the trailer kind of put me off a little bit initially, because I’m really not a Harry Potter fan. At all. (Before I get burned at the stake for heresy, not everybody likes the same thing. Personally, I find the whole thing tedious, confused and unappealing. Okay, NOW you can light your matches.)
As the trailer carried on, it became obvious that this was far less Potter, more Goosebumps. (Having heard there was another Goosebumps movie on the way, I then mistook this for the next one of those – but that was due more to Jack Black being in it than anything else.
So, for a while, confusion reigned but either one of those scenarios was more likely in my mind than what the film actually turned out to be – which is a family horror movie directed by Eli Roth, the guy responsible for gut wrenching, hard to watch gorefests like Cabin Fever, Hostel, Hostel 2 and Green Inferno (I’ve yet to see his remake of Death Wish) Only a few weeks ago, I picked up Green Inferno on disc, and was both enthralled and repulsed by the cannibalistic imagery as the poor victims fell prey to an Amazonian tribe they were trying to defend. Yep, from the delicacies of scooped out eyeballs to a child friendly fantasy set at Halloween in the fifties in one stroke. More than any of his other films, this is Eli Roth’s coming of age, as he successfully makes the leap from the torture porn of Hostel and it’s understandably niche audience to mainstream family entertainment.
This is a film that I can see becoming a part of my “Halloween mix” – film I regularly like to visit in the long shadows of October, which includes family favourites Monster House, Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Sleepy Hollow, Monster Club and Hocus Pocus, among the array of slashers, vampires, werewolves and assorted critters.
Set in 1955 in the small town of New Zebedee, Michigan, recently orphaned ten year old Louis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) steps off the bus to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in what appears to be at first glance, a haunted house. Jonathan is close friends with the seemingly ever present, and equally eccentric neighbour, the widowed Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).
What Louis doesn’t initially know is that his uncle is a warlock (though not a very good one) and Mrs Zimmerman is a white witch, who has lost her powers, as well as her husband and child in a concentration camp. Odd things begin to happen. A ticking sound is heard in the house walls, and Jonathan has a habit of creeping around after dark, in search of something.
As Louis realises that his new life is far from the quiet, normal one he yearns for and making friends at his new school isn’t particularly easy, he decides he wants to become a warlock and so begins his training. Life in the house is pretty easy going, until Louis breaks Jonathan’s one and only rule – he opens the locked cabinet that holds a powerful book containing necromancy spells and in trying to impress a cynical kid he’s trying to befriend, he raises the dead – specifically Jonathan’s ex-friend, who turned evil, Isaac Izzard (Kyle MacLachlan). It’s Izzard who has hidden a doomsday clock somewhere within the structure of the house that is relentlessly counting down to a lunar eclipse which will coincide with a magical realignment that basically will end the world. So, the race is on to find the clock, defeat the living impaired and save the world. But first, they have to get back into the house which is now guarded by demonic Jack lantern pumpkins that resemble the aliens from Fiend without a Face (1958).
There’s nothing to dislike here. Jack Black gives a toned down, though still sardonic performance that fits his character perfectly. The real surprise though is Cate Blanchett, whom I’ve always considered dull and unremarkable. This is the second consecutive performance of hers where I’ve seen her really shine. (The first was Thor: Ragnarok, a year ago)
Some of the other highlights of the film are a topiary griffin which has an incontinence problem, and a stained-glass window that can realign itself to foretell the future. Sounds ridiculous out of context, but watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.
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