The final act saves the film.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is possessed of a sprightly, featherweight tone that can only be described as Spielberg-extra-lite. It features familiar Amblin iconography like warm suburban photography (by Rogier Stoffers), a wide-eyed moppet protagonist, a lot of kid-friendly humor, and the type in-depth exploration of a secret world of magic that is so well-worn that it’s lost all its tread.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is missing a lot of vital charm and genuine wonderment that its genre so thirstily requires and is so rarely rewarded with. It’s not until the film’s final act – when puppet automatons spring to life, jack-o’-lanterns attack, and zombies begin stalking the halls – that it really begins to breathe and excite. Perhaps this approach should come as no surprise, as the film was directed by Eli Roth, the gore-hungry auteur behind The Green Inferno and the Hostel movies. Even when working on a PG-rated film for young audiences, Roth is more interested in the scary bits.
Based on the 1973 Young Adult fantasy novel written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, The House with the Clock in Its Walls takes place in 1955 in New Zebedee, MI. Our story’s young goggle-wearing and linguaphile hero Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), recently orphaned by a car crash, is to move in with his eccentric uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black) a one-time stage magician and local kook who lives in the neighborhood “haunted mansion” the wonderfully designed eponymous edifice that looks a lot like, well, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, and that holds a dark secret left behind by the possibly-dead and definitely evil Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Almost immediately, Barnavelt reveals himself to be an actual warlock, and it won’t take more than a single plea for Lewis to begin his lessons in the dark arts. Adding a much-needed shot of adult gravitas to the proceedings is Florence Zimmermann (Cate Blanchett, the film’s MVP) a once-talented European witch who has lost her will to cast.
As long-time students of the Amblin milieu, modern audiences – adults and kids alike – will likely feel something is missing from The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it won’t take long to recognize that we’re running low on bedazzlement. Rather than slowly discovering the world of magic and warlocks and enormous houses full of taxidermied animals and spooky automatons, the audience is marched through the introductory paces with something of a perfunctory glance. Lewis, while given a few superficial interests and vague personality traits, never quite emerges as the true weirdo the film declares him to be.
What’s more, any further bedazzlement is kept frustratingly at bay by Jack Black’s broad and silly performance. Black, ordinarily very funny, is miscast here. He performs Barnavelt as a borderline farcical character, all too ready to make griffin poop jokes and mug wildly. His performance gives the whole of The House with a Clock in Its Walls a wonky comedic tone that is certainly mismatched with its darker, spookier elements. Blanchett, conversely and mercifully, figured out how to balance a broad character with genuine emotion. Her smiles and jibes feel lived in and authentic. To be fair, Florence has a richer backstory: In 1955, A European woman named Zimmermann would likely have lived through something terrible. Indeed, it will eventually be revealed that several of the characters have been marked by wartime trauma, lending the film a needed teaspoon of thematic oomph.
Only when The House with a Clock in Its Walls finally breaks open the terror piñata and begins hurling numerous frightening set pieces at the audience (the attacking jack-o’-lanterns are a highlight), does it begin to become lively, and even a little bit scary (in that PG-rated sort of way). Little kids love to be scared, I think (I definitely did when I was a lad), and The House with a Clock in Its Walls will provide them with a healthy helping of fascinating nightmare images for them to ruminate on during their waking hours. Beware the seven-foot Devil puppet.
It’s a pity Roth wasn’t able to handle his characters as deftly as he did his horror. Roth’s characters have typically been portrayed as screaming piles of meat meant to be rent, tortured, and eaten alive. His films are viscerally compelling/repellent, but often ring hollow or nihilistic from a character standpoint. For a PG-rated kid film, he had to change gears not just in terms of content, but in terms of candor. He achieves more than one might assume possible in such an outing as this, but Roth, it seems, needs at least one more film to nail light, casual humanity. Until then, we have a nice spook flick to keep us satisfied through the Halloween season.