Creepy puppets, a taloned demon, and a hideously deformed villain are all par for the course in an Eli Roth movie. But here’s a twist – The House with a Clock in its Walls is actually aimed at families, and stars an adorable 10-year-old rather than a cast of hedonistic backpackers out for a good slaying.
Another twist: Roth is a perfect fit for the material. Hopping not only genres but also target audiences, the Hostel director proves a surprisingly savvy choice for this energetic adap of John Bellairs’ 1973 novel, in which young orphan boy Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) moves in to the Hammer Horror-esque home of warlock Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black). Filled with clocks, a sentient lounge chair and a stained-glass window that changes its panels on a whim, the house is also home to Jonathan’s purple-loving witch pal Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).
If that set-up sounds as cosy as sipping hot cocoa in the Gryffindor common room, it is, and as Lewis attempts to fit in at school and his new home, there are times the film slips into the kind of overly twee territory that made early Harry Potter sickly sweet. Jonathan and Florence bicker in annoying Roald Dahlian slang, there’s a daft, incontinent winged-lion tree, and Lewis’ school subplot is pure rent-an-Amblin (Spielberg produced), his friendship with a bad boy remaining somewhat under-explored.
But Roth proves a dab hand with visual gags: a visit to a soda store reaps belly laughs, while some nightmarish pumpkins up the gore factor. It’s when the story takes a turn for the sinister, with the introduction of evil warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle McLachlan), that Roth really comes into his own. Izard left a legacy of horror in the house, and Roth doesn’t hold back with his film’s genuinely scary moments.
Making up for the lack of big surprises, the central trio weave their own brand of magic. Blanchett in particular both grounds and elevates her somewhat obvious material, and Jack Black has fun doing what Jack Black does best. Meanwhile, Vaccaro is a spirited young lead who nails the offbeat tone even when Roth occasionally wobbles.
By the excellent, nail-chomping finale, the story has earned its right to deal out a few life lessons for the younger crowd – assuming they’ve stuck around through the scary stuff – and the fact that Bellairs wrote 11 more adventures starring Lewis and his uncle bodes well. On the evidence of this zingy adap, a return visit to Jonathan’s house wouldn’t be unwelcome.
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- Release date: September 21, 2018
- Certificate: PG (US)/12A (UK)
- Running time: 105 mins