Kids meet Eli Roth. Eli Roth, kids. The horror auteur, infamous for torture porn cornerstone Hostel and – to a lesser degree – gooey meta-slasher Cabin Fever, takes to Amblin-produced PG material with surprising poise. Roth, who up to this point has strictly directed hard-R films, adapts the first of John Bellairs’ twelve-part children’s novels from the 1970s, The House With a Clock in its Walls, proffering a mostly family-friendly vision of dark witchcraft, haunted houses, and misfittery. The tale of woebegone wizardry may never fully clicks into place like the magical clock in its title but this Halloween-tinged creeper should fulfill paperback preteens looking for an age-appropriate spook.
Owen Vaccaro is Lewis Barnavelt. Recently an orphan, Lewis is sent to live with his reclusive, odd uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black doing his standard Jack Black shtick), also watched over by Cate Blanchett’s eccentric neighbor Florence Zimmerman in the far-off New Zebedee, Michigan. Misfitted to the athletics-driven denizens of his new school, Lewis makes but a singular new friend in Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), a popular kid running for student government with ulterior motives who prompts Lewis into a terrible mistake.
The House With a Clock in its Walls mashes together J.K. Rowling fantasy and R. L. Stein prepubescent chills, unraveling the never-quite-spellbinding saga of Lewis’ accidental necromancy. The magic house appeals to our sense of wonder without ever really satisfying a craving for anything distinguishable novel. Eric Kripke’s script misses opportunities to create a deeper sense of emotional connection to the otherworldly plot beats, even if the characters and sets do feel adequately lived in.
Roth, in conjunction with production designer Jon Hutman (The Mummy, c. 2017), measures a share of snuggly eerie (think Pee Wee’s Playhouse) in with some genuinely blood-curdling imagery (a pronged-tongue woodland hell-faun, eyes aglow and chugging blood.) It can be a startling mishmash of tones, the goofy kid-approved levity in with upper-tier night terror imagery.
While Lewis, a kid obsessed with the dictionary and permanently affixed to a dorky pair of goggles, struggles to adapt at school, he thrives at home under the tutelage of his warlock uncle, taking to magic like a pig to shit. However, the magic in The House With a Clock in its Walls lacks distinction and purpose and often feels like kitchen sink hijinx with a sprinkling of deus ex machina. Because of this, Clock feels like just another wanna-be Harry Potter off-shoot, destined for a brief stay in society’s short memory span, if it manages to make any impression at all.
The problem remains that The House With a Clock in its Walls can be a difficult picture to connect with, pleasantly hovering on the periphery of my attention, not causing offense and eliciting the occasional minor chuckle. But I can’t in good conscience say that my reaction was anything great than the mildest of amusements. As the plot shifts its sights towards apocalyptic possibilities, there’s a jolt of much-needed energy but dark wizard Isaac Izard (a half-rotted Kyle MacLachlan) is a one-note obstacle that fails to become a narrative tendril about the challenges of found families.
Roth hides elements worth celebrating throughout the picture; Cate Blanchett’s glib characterization of the maternal witch next door is an always welcome blast of refreshment; the cast’s chemistry is pretty spot on, Blanchett and Black pinging off each other in familiar fashion; the undeniably sweet and longing heart that beats within the discarded Barnavelt’s genealogy is undeniably felt. The movie dares kids to be weird, to embrace their intelligence and to take responsibility for their actions – all of which feel integral to the story and not padded Life Lessons. But having to measure that in with the fact that I now have the image of a fully-bearded Jack Black with a badly CGI-ed baby body seared into my head – the ultimate nightmare fodder – is not something one can easily forget. If only Hermoine Granger could cast a quick memory charm.
CONCLUSION: ‘The House With a Clock in its Walls’ is neither the disaster that a PG Eli Roth movie may have been nor is it magical or memorable enough to cast a spell over its adult audience, though as a (somewhat) family-friendly Halloweeny horror, it offers heart, creeps, fun performances, and cool sets, if never living up its erudite hero’s claim of being indomitable.