The house contains skulls, mummified hands, and stained-glass windows that come alive. Secret panels lurk in the corners, and the dusty old books are full of spells for raising the dead. In short, this is my dream house when I was 11 years old. The place is the title character of The House With a Clock in Its Walls, and given its macabre bric-a-brac, I really should’ve liked this movie more. What went wrong?
The film is adapted from a popular 1973 children’s novel by John Bellairs, about an orphan lad, Lewis Barnavelt (Daddy’s Home’s Owen Vaccaro), sent to live with his uncle in a spooky old house in New Zebedee, Mich.
Uncle Jonathan is a supremely eccentric man who pads around in a kimono, serves chocolate chip cookies for dinner, and occasionally takes an ax to the walls in the middle of the night, looking for … something. More about that later. He’s played by Jack Black, who perhaps unintentionally gives Uncle Jonathan the creepy vibe of the relative you always instinctively shrank from. When he asks Lewis, “Do you know what a warlock is?” it’s supposed to be funny and intriguing, but you could forgive Lewis for looking up the number for Child Protective Services. Jonathan has a witchy neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), with whom he carries on a love/hate relationship. Thank goodness she’s constantly over at the Barnavelt mansion, because Blanchett is a great actress in any circumstances, and she sneaks campy intonations and raised eyebrows into every conversation.
After Lewis finds out about the black magic in the house, he learns a few tricks himself. He also discovers that Jonathan is uptight because the mansion’s previous occupant, a shifty magician named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, still getting his Twin Peaks freak on), hid a maddeningly ticking clock in the walls. In a plot point that the movie seems to forget, this clock has something to do with the end of the world. And yet the story carries less urgency as it ticks along, frittering away its energy amid all the special effects and sight gags.
I know, I know: This film isn’t for me, but for the 11-year-olds out there. Maybe they’ll like it, but I have to say that the PG-rated House With a Clock contains a handful of over-the-top-wacko images that would’ve provided a generous dose of nightmare fuel when I was that age. And I’m not merely talking about the sight of Jack Black’s massive adult head sprouting from a baby’s body (although that is one of the more disturbing things I’ve seen recently).
One problem is that the scary dolls and grinning jack o’ lanterns feel borrowed from other movies. This is the first foray into family-friendly fare for director Eli Roth, better known for his hardcore horror pictures such as Hostel. Maybe that’s why the whole childhood-wonder routine (despite the efforts of Vaccaro, a sharp actor) and the Stranger Things atmosphere comes across as insincere. You have to buy into that stuff to bring the house to life, and the film itself doesn’t seem entirely convinced.