The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

Gore-meister Eli Roth tones his usual style way, way down for The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a PG-rated, semi-Spielbergian big screen adaptation (no surprise, given Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment is the production house) of John Bellairs’ oddly titled 1973 novel that is a far cry from the likes of his torture-porn entries like Hostel, The Green Inferno, and Cabin Fever.  If anything, House will prove that Roth has skills as a director beyond being exploitative, though his fans will likely hope his experience won’t temper his prior tendencies to push the limits of violence in future projects.  While there are some horror elements to the film, they stay in the realm of the mild throughout, content to give young kids a thrill ride, even if adults will take it all in stride.

Set in a small town called New Zebedee, in Michigan during the mid 1950s, we follow the adventures of a ten-year-old orphan named Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, Daddy’s Home), mourning the recent loss of his parents to a fatal car accident, staying in the rickety and seemingly haunted Victorian mansion of his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black, Kung Fu Panda 3).  Jonathan is an eccentric warlock often visited by his neighbor, a witch named Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett, Thor: Ragnarok), and the mansion he resides in is anything but mundane. A new home also means a new school for Lewis, who is immediately labeled as a square by his peers and subsequently picked on as he tries in vain to make a friend.  School isn’t the only place of learning for the boy, as Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman begin to teach him the ways of the warlocks, whose acts are spurred on by visions of his dead mother, while they mysteriously spend their time looking for a fabled clock hidden within the walls of the mansion.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is innocuously fun, though fans of the book will likely be somewhat disappointed by the curious lack of suspense and intrigue as the mystery as to the clock takes shape.  Part of the reason for the lack of tension is the sheer amount of bells and whistles already on display from within the mansion, including wild and giant creatures lurking behind doors and pieces of furniture that seems to have lives of their own.  Some fun will be had when Lewis begins to do magic that may be a bit more advanced than he can handle, including a clever one that brings jack-o-lanterns to life, whereupon they mischievously spew their innards against the protagonists, threatening to encase then in rapidly solidifying glop.

The most curious of the casting is Cate Blanchett in more of a supporting role, and one that doesn’t require a knockout actor to perform, though she ends up elevating the film nonetheless with her presence and dashes of nuance to give Mrs. Zimmerman the air of complexity.  Black, who already made an effect-heavy semi-horror children’s’ book property in the very similar Goosebumps, is his usual energetic self, though he does play more for caricature than character, which leaves Jonathan as an enigma in motivation throughout, despite plenty of spunky charisma on display.  The bantering chemistry between Zimmerman and Uncle Jonathan is one of the film’s best assets.  Kyle MacLachlan (Inside Out) makes a memorable late appearance in the film as rival warlock Isaac Izard, whose rise and fall in his profession ties in directly with the titular clock that has implications far, far beyond the walls of the mansion.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is handsomely presented, with lots of eye-candy visual effects to support it, and loads of period props, gothic sets, and elaborate costumes to admire, though perhaps it’s all a bit too busy for us to properly settle in to the more personal story at the core.  If the moments of mayhem could have been relegated to certain sequences, rather than sporadically pop up throughout, the result may have been better pacing, and more exploration of the characters as people for whom we should care.  Younger viewers will get the most mileage out of the proceedings, as Roth leans heavily on bodily functions to inject laughs in scenes that he feels need punctuating, while adults may find it a bit on the bland side, with a few occasional hiccups of amusement to keep one’s interest, despite its inherent familiarity in the post Harry Potter film world.

Qwipster’s rating: B-

MPAA Rated:
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, Renee ELise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp
Cameo: Eli Roth
Director: Eli Roth
Screenplay: Eric Kripke (based on the novel by John Bellairs)