Movie Review: The HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

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The House With A Clock In Its Walls movie posterUniversal Pictures
2018
PG

“Be a dear. Fetch a knife and stab me in the ears.”

Ten-year-old Lewis goes to live with his oddball uncle in a creaky old house that contains a mysterious `tick tock’ noise. He soon learns that Uncle Jonathan and his feisty neighbor, Mrs Zimmerman, are powerful practitioners of the magic arts. When Lewis accidentally awakens the dead, the town’s sleepy facade suddenly springs to life, revealing a secret and dangerous world of witches, warlocks and deadly curses.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls was a young adult Gothic mystery that was written by John Bellairs and published in 1973. I’ve never read anything by John Bellairs. I even went through his bibliography to make sure I didn’t inadvertently read one of his novels in grade school and just didn’t remember doing so. I was a voracious reader, even back then, and gravitated towards mysteries with a solid spooky supernatural feel to them. Weird as a kid, weird as an adult. But, no, I hadn’t read any of his fiction, which is odd, as they would have been right up my alley.

Anyway, The House with a Clock in Its Walls was the first in a series of books staring protagonist character Lewis Barnavelt, and proved to be a hit with the readers. It was adapted once before as one of three segments in the television anthology Once Upon A Midnight Scary, which was hosted by none other than Vincent Price back in 1979. Then, it was adapted into a full-length feature film in 2018 staring Jack Black.

The first thing I want to point out about this adaptation is that, this is directed by Eli Roth. Yes, that same Eli Roth who gave us the movies Cabin Fever and the Hostel series. He also did the cannibal horror film The Green Inferno, helmed the Death Wish remake, and stared in Inglorious Basterds. I’m not criticizing his movie choices; I’m merely pointing out that Eli Roth’s name isn’t exactly in the Top Five of names that pop up when we’re discussing family friendly fantasy films.

Also, I didn’t mean to use alliteration like that. Totally unintentional.

Second, did we really need to use the lettering style in the title to be a rip-off of the Harry Potter film series titles? Derivative, smacks of desperation, shows a lack of confidence on the studio’s part for letting this movie stand on its own. Ultimately, a pointless gripe. Moving on…

As a movie, I believe that Eli Roth has a bright future with young adult family dark fantasy films, if The House With A Clock In Its Walls is any indication. This movie is right up there with personal favorites like the Addams Family movies and the classic Tim Burton flicks. Jack Black is his usual fantastic self here, playing the roll as the eccentric warlock uncle Jonathan Barnavelt kind of subdued to his normal manic style. He plays off well with Cate Blanchett’s Florence Zimmerman character, the longtime neighbor and friend who is constantly trading barbs with Jonathan. Owen Vaccaro is also rather good as the child character of Lewis Barnavelt, the nephew that is brought into the world of magic, starts to learn magic himself, and then resurrects the dead to impress his friends. As you do.

It’s dark, it’s whimsical, it has some great visuals as well as a good Gothic atmosphere, and it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the story. The House With A Clock In Its Walls is a great movie, thumbs up all the way. Check it out if you haven’t done so already. Recommended.

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Movie Review: HANGMAN’S CURSE

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Hangman's_Curse_FilmPosterNamesake Entertainment
2003
PG-13

“Certain forces are now in motion and nobody can do anything to change what’s going to happen. Watch your back.”

At the big football game, the quarterback of the high school team suddenly goes kaka-kookoo, muttering something about “Abel Frye”. That’s the third high school football player to suddenly loose his marbles like that. Enter in the Springfields, a family of private investigators, to get to the bottom of the whole mystery. With Mr. Springfield posing as the school janitor, Mrs. Springfield as the school counselor, and their twin children as students, they delve into the urban legend surrounding the death of a former student ten years ago, and the rumor about his ghost haunting the students who pick on the weaker ones. But, it seems that the truth behind this situation is a lot more scary than fiction…

What can I say? I’m a sucker for anything Frank Peretti. And while the first novel in his young adult series may not have been the choice of most Peretti fans (I’m guessing This Present Darkness would have topped the list…not for me, actually, as I’m more of a fan of his later work), this first attempt at translating his work to the big screen was fairly decent, a lot more than most Christian movies I’ve seen. And yes, I am including The Omega Code…wow, that movie sucked…

Anyhoo, as a movie, Hangman’s Curse retains the creepy vibe that I always loved about his books. Although I must admit I watched this movie right after having read the actual book, and there are a lot of diversions between the two. Doesn’t matter, if you can keep yourself from pointing out these differences and actually sit back and enjoy the film for what it is- a fairly edgy (for a Christian movie, keep that in mind) mystery thriller with a dark edge and fairly decent special effects, with an underlying theme of what happens when unpopular teenagers are pushed too far. This will make many people squeamish, which is the point. And is also the reason why I like this movie.

Acting wise, I would liken this to a really good episode of Degrassi The Next Generation with a bigger budget. The two actors portraying the Springfield twins were actually quite engaging, although there were the obligatory slang phrases thrown in that felt a bit…forced (who says “That’s whack” in this day and age, anyway?). What I like about this is the fact that it doesn’t offer tired pat answers to the problems put forth here. There’s a lot of really good discussion opportunities for youth groups in this thing…and it’ll definitely keep their attention…

The reason why I included this in the Horror section is simple…there’s images and effects that are in the horror sensibilities, and the underlying subject includes a good ghost story, which is part of the genre itself. And let’s face it…Peretti (who has a part as an eccentric scientist) has a way of introducing the supernatural in everything he writes, and not necessarily in the warm and fuzzy way. That, and the spiders. I hate spiders. Which is why I’m fascinated with them, actually…

All said, not a bad way to spend 90 minutes…and one of the better so-called Christian movies made…now, if they only had a better budget…

Book Review: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: Carnival Of Souls

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Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Carnival Of SoulsNancy Holder
Gallery Books
2006

There’s something troubling about Professor Caligari’s Traveling Carnival. Perhaps it’s that on one can recall the arrival of its hard-to-miss caravan of old-style wagons, countless performers, and horse-drawn carts. Maybe it’s the creepy Calliope music that tirelessly beckons visitors. Let’s face it, an enigma that chooses Sunnydale nearly guarantees it’s up to more than wholesome family entertainment. After a visit to the carnival’s Hall of Mirrors, a once-shy pair of homely sophomore twins parades the halls of Sunnydale High like diva supermodles on a runway. Intuiting the twins’ abrupt personality change as more than a self-confidence boost, Buffy–joined by Angel, Giles, and the rest of the Scoobies–decides to investigate the suspicious carnival firsthand. But soon it’s apparent that the price of admission is higher than she imagined. Those who enter the carnival’s attractions exit…changed. Each of the gang soon shows extreme displays of vice. Willow is wracked with envy. Cordelia’s greed consumes her. Xander unleashes his gluttony. Angel reveals a lusty new persona. And a dark anger rises in Giles. But it’s Buffy’s now-blinding pride that threatens to overpower her, and in the process destroy those she loves…

It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer television series. I own all seven seasons, which I tend to watch in its entirety every year or so. I consider it a near-perfect and cleaver deconstruction of the horror genre, perfectly mixing thrills, drama and humor in one 42-minute show (excluding commercial breaks). I have yet to check out the so-called “Season Eight” comics to continue getting my post-series fix, but when I ran into a couple of novels on clearance sale, I couldn’t resist and picked ’em up, thinking that they will expand my enjoyment of one of my favorite shows.

Carnival Of Souls was the first of the three that I’ve read. I want to preface this by saying that I did realize, getting into this, that these books were technically written for the young adult crowd. I didn’t crack this open expecting something written for people like me in mind. Still, even knowing this, I found the writing style of this Nancy Holder to be something akin to Junior High-level fan fic, barely a step or two above that of Stephanie Meyer. The only difference being that I didn’t feel like my intelligence was constantly being insulted while reading this. Still, I did find myself pausing more often than usual, just to let the twinge of less-than-good writing pass.

As to the story: Carnival Of Souls takes place around the early part of the second season, before Angel lost his soul and the wackiness ensued, but some time after Halloween, as the character Ethan Rayne factors in here. And sorry about geeking all over all of you, there. Anyway, this is your standard “Something Wicked This Way Comes” type setting, in that there’s a supernatural carnival that uses the Seven Deadly Sins to lure in the Sunnydale townfolk for their SOOOOOUUUULS! I also realize that I just referenced a much better book in this review. I do not apologize for this.

As a novel set in the Buffy-verse, Carnival Of Souls gets a good, solid “meh”. The story played out like a filler episode, the writing style was embarrassingly annoying, and all reading this did was make me wish I watched the episodes instead. Still, not the worst thing I’ve read.

Book Review: HANGMAN’S CURSE (Frank Peretti)

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The Hangman's Curse

Frank Peretti
Tommy Nelson
2001

In Baker, Washington, three popular student athletes lie in incoherent comas, with loss of muscle coordination, severe paranoia, and hallucinations. It’s whispered that they’re victims of Abel Frye, a ghost that’s haunted the school since a student hanged himself there in the 1930s. Now the hangman’s curse is spreading, and students are running scared. The Veritas Project, a family of two twin teenagers and their parents secretly commissioned by the President to investigate strange occurrences, is headed to Washington looking for answers to the recent appearance of a ghostly figure with a glowing hawk perched on his shoulder. Is this Abel Frye’s ghost, a dark angel…or something else? And who is responsible for the bizarre hangman symbol that suddenly appears scrawled on the victims’ lockers? One thing’s for sure…they have to find the truth at Baker High School fast or Abel Frye and his crawling minions will make this the final exam…

Growing up, I used to be a big fan of the mid-80s version of the Hardy Boys books, the ones that were more contemporary (at the time) and edgier than the ones my father grew up with in the 50s. Things blew up, and characters actually died, which made for more of a grown-up feel to these juvenile fiction series. Of course, in the Christian fiction market, there’s always someone or group that publishes a Christian version of whatever pop market title is going (they refer to these rip-offs as “godly alternatives”): There was the Forbidden Doorways series that was part juvie-mystery and juvie-horror, kind of a Scoobie-Doo meets R. L. Stein, that was supposed to be a “godly alternative” to the then-popular Goosebumps book line.

For years, author Frank Peretti was considered the “godly alternative” to Stephen King (which is a bit much; I would consider Peretti as the “G. A.” to Ira Levin). With the Veritas Project series (Latin for “Truth”), he takes a stab at teen fiction that, for all intents and purposes, succeeds greatly in telling a great story while driving the main themes home to the reader. Mind you, the writing style is a bit more simple, but not by much, which results in the reader not feeling like they’re being talked down to. There are many tense scenes, and the overarcing theme of alienation in High School and reaching out to those who are hurting comes through clearly. Also, if you happen to have a fear of spiders, this story will really freak you out. Like me. *brrrrr*…

Really, there’s only been two entries in the Veritas series. Hopefully, Peretti hasn’t set aside this concept, as I found it rather enjoying. I know, coming from an adult reader, it sounds kind of creepy for me perusing the juvenile fiction section for this title, but if you’re in Junior High and like things a bit more creepy than usual, have at it…