By Liam Lacey
Director Eli Roth, best known for raising the gruesome bar in horror thrillers such as Cabin Fever and Hostel, takes a whack at family-friendly entertainment in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, and produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. As adapted by Eric Kripke from John Bellair’s 1973 novel (which was illustrated by Edward Gorey), the story is amply stuffed with fantastical curios and quirky characters but burdened with a middling story and pokey pace.
Fans of gothic junior genre can check the boxes: A grieving adolescent orphan sent to live an over-stuffed ramshackle old building with eccentric guardians, where frights are to be found and mysterious curses lifted. But the details matter. The year is 1955, as we can see from Jon Hutman’s fine production design, which spills over from vintage cars and buses to the house itself, which features animated stain-glass windows and jack-o’-lanterns, a stuffed chair that behaves like a puppy and an incontinent topiary griffin.
As we begin, 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, whose great asset is his solemn-beyond-his-years face) arrives by bus to the Michigan town of New Zebedee, wearing flying goggles and a bow-tie and carrying a suitcase full of dictionaries, because, you know, he’s a bookworm. Lewis is beginning his new life with his Uncle Jonathan, a former magician (played by Black, more or less channeling Orson Welles’ in his late campy period) shows up at the bus station dressed in a black kimono. The house rules? No rules — no bedtime and chocolate chip cookies for dinner.
As Lewis tries to communicate at night with his dead mom via his Magic 8-Ball, he is disturbed by his Uncle Jonathan’s prowls through the halls of the house, playing with the vast collection of clocks. Lewis soon learns that Jonathan is warlock (or “boy witch” as Lewis prefers to call him). There’s also a regular witch in the house named Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett, in a lilac dress and grey bun), who lives in the house and provides regular streams of cookies and insults for Jonathan. Their relationship, she informs Lewis, is not “kissy facey.”
Somewhere in the background, there’s the spectre of the Second World War and the Holocaust, but not enough that the kids are likely to notice.
Because the supernatural is really a metaphor for the turmoil of adolescence, Lucas’s central concern is trying to impress a popular kid, Tarby (Sunny Suljic). That leads him to open a forbidden door which leads to the reanimation of a dead warlock named Issac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Issac is essentially the discount Voldemort of our story though not really very scary which seems a shame. Roth, in restricting himself to the polite requirements of a kid-friendly movie, keeps his darker instincts in check, making this more a movie about set design than emotions.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eric Kripke, adapted from the novel by John Bellair. Starring Owen Vaccaro, Cate Blanchett, Jack Black and Kyle MacLachlan. Opens wide September 21.