Eli Roth has made a children’s horror fantasy movie. Eli Roth? The same guy who just this year had Bruce Willis bloodily gunning down gangsters in Death Wish?
With a director whose record also includes such gory horror affairs as Hostel and The Green Inferno, one might be cautious of him taking on a film with a PG rating. But fear not, parents: Roth has kept his violent desires in check for this Goosebumps-style picture fit for Halloween. In fact, he may have put on a few too many shackles and played a film with magic, zombies, and doomsday devices too straight.
Based on the 1970s children’s mystery novel by John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is essentially the home-schooled version of Harry Potter. Taking place in 1950s Michigan, the story sees newly orphaned genius boy Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) come to stay with his weird Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and Jonathan’s even weirder house of many clocks and oddities. With a sentient easy chair and a morphing stained-glass window, it doesn’t take long for Lewis to discover something is amiss. Magic is afoot. And when he finds out that anyone can wield it if they study hard enough, he’s more than eager to hit Jonathan’s many dusty old books.
There’s enough of a story right there, but an increasing number of characters and arcs crowd the screen, leaving little room to appreciate the fantastical adventure. Jonathan is neighbored by another magic user, the decadent Florence (Cate Blanchett), who is witty enough to deliver an endless salvo of silly snarks that Jonathan bats back just as easily. Their scenes are by far the most entertaining, but there’s not enough time for them—not when there’s a sinister plot by Jonathan’s old nemesis of an evil warlock, played by Kyle MacLachlan with creepy zombie makeup and a needless demonic voice alteration. And then there’s the addition of Lewis’s schoolyard acquaintances, a pushy bully and a bug-loving crush, who quickly become lost in the shuffle of witches and warlocks.
Oh, and there’s a mysterious clock in the walls that is driving Jonathan mad.
Wait, also, there are ghosts. Am I missing anything? Are the creepy mechanical puppets worth mentioning?
With so many interesting things going on, the movie has all the right stuff but never fully takes off. The acting becomes a distraction at times, with Black starting and stopping an accent and Vaccaro delivering over-the-top cries that never feel believable. And there’s such an unevenness to the editing that Lewis’s journey of magical powers proceeds more with passivity than wonder; one scene features Jonathan conjuring an interactive projection of the universe, and it feels like there should be some grander excitement when Lewis can spin a moon or cradle a planet. And once the magical villain reveals his scheme, it comes off as a standard end-of-the-world desire that spins a lot of new rules and character changes at the last minute.
The kids will undoubtedly dig this kind of movie, though. Jonathan’s spooky home is every kid’s dream the way he describes it: no bedtimes, no rules, and freshly baked cookies with every meal. There are plenty of lowbrow antics to keep the kids laughing, including the recurring joke of a topiary lion that won’t use the litter box properly. And there’s loads of excitement in the film’s many scary set pieces, the most vivid being Cate Blanchett wielding her wand like a shotgun against demonic pumpkins that puke pumpkin innards.
I’ve been lucky with past spooky children’s movies crossing the generational divide, but I think I may be on that line of the underwhelmed parent with a fantasy better suited for kids. It’s a visually alluring picture, with just the right amount of creepiness for the kids, a positive message about embracing the weird, and even moments of comedic brilliance that made me laugh more than once. But much like Halloween night in the suburbs, I think the kids will get more out of this than the adults.