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Soundtrack review: The house with a clock in its walls (Nathan Barr – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: The house with a clock in its walls (Nathan Barr – 2018)



“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a 2018 American fantasy film directed by Eli Roth, based on the 1973 juvenile fiction novel of the same name by John Bellairs. The film stars Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, and Kyle MacLachlan, and follows a young boy who is sent to live with his uncle in a creaky old house. He soon learns it was previously also inhabited by his uncle’s former friend, a warlock who planned to end the world with a clock he had made and hidden within the house. Nathan Barr wrote the score.

Alright, fantasy movie, anticipation is high for this one. The score opens with a sneaky orchestral variation built like a question mark which turns into an even sneakier spy jazzy motif. “New Zebedee” feels like a suite or a presentation of the main themes which are about to come as it switches the mood and genre quite often. The second cue “A lot of clocks” is similarly mixed with a fairy tale beginning followed by a jazz passage. “Quite different around here” is where things settle down with a soft chime of the piano and a very subtle female vocal part. Next it’s time for a Mexican guitar inspired cue and I’m starting to think there will be a lot of different flavours to choose from in this score. For now my favourite is the angelic fairy tale one where the harp and choir come together. Still even on a cue like “Mother visits” the composer changes the tone and goes for suspense. As I haven’t seen the movie yet I can only assume that things change as often in the movie as well with things never being what they seem.

Generally the music is soft when it’s quiet and borderline horror when it’s not. It’s not a traditional fantasy score as the elegant, sweeping orchestral moments are fewer than the frantic action oriented ones. I like the use of gentle instruments like the harp and the flute to express the innocence of the child in that dangerous environment. What prevents this score from being truly great is that it is too restrained; it fails to take off. It threatens it a few times, it’s almost there but it stays mostly tense, suspenseful, uncertain. The music itself is good, beautifully orchestrated and I find motifs to enjoy but maybe the music could have been let free in some moments like “Secret entrance” which is one of those cues which start bold and then instead of building up hesitate again.

I am curious to see the movie and experience the music in context; maybe it is a tense, horror like movie and this is what it needs. As a standalone listening experience though “The house with a clock in its walls” could have been more exciting, more effervescent. It knocks on the door but it doesn’t come in and it’s a shame because, like I said, the score has potential musically. There are cues like “My beautiful wife” which is an excellent orchestral storm and the superb “Insect book” which show what I love about the score. Maybe it’s just a matter of expectations and further listening will change my impressions.

Cue rating: 78 / 100

Backyard Magic
Mother Returns
My Beautiful Wife
Bedroom Escape
Insect Book

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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