FILM REVIEW – THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. With Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Sunny Suljic, Kyle MacLachlan. Written by Eric Kripke. Directed by Eli Roth. Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor, and language. 104 minutes.
If I were to sit down and rank sentences I never thought I’d write, “That new children’s film directed by Eli Roth is really rather delightful,” would be pretty high up there. And yet it turns out the smirky torture-porn auteur behind the “Hostel” movies and this year’s odious, enervated “Death Wish” remake has a real knack for the old Amblin Entertainment house style of junior thrills and chills. Based on the beloved 1973 novel by John Bellairs, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a kicky throwback to those mischievous, slightly sinister kids’ adventures Spielberg proteges uses to churn out on a fairly regular basis three decades ago. Funny how it took Eli Roth, of all people, to make the best Robert Zemeckis movie in ages.
Owen Vacarro stars as Lewis Barnacvelt, recently orphaned and sent to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a giant shambles of a house we quickly figure out is haunted. Lewis’ laissez-faire approach to parenthood includes pearls of wisdom like “Why go to the trouble of having cookies for dessert when you can just eat them for dinner instead?” but he’s a bit of a stickler about his magic.
See, Uncle Jonathan is a warlock (don’t call him a “boy-witch” because that makes him angry) and not a particularly accomplished one at that. Along with Lewis we soon discover that Uncle Jonathan’s far more gifted former partner (Kyle MacLachlan, having a grand old time) turned evil and stashed a doomsday clock somewhere in these walls before blowing himself up in a blood magic ritual. Now it’s up to Uncle Jonathan, his nephew and a retired witch living next door (Cate Blanchett, all clipped consonants and clad exclusively in violet) to find and stop the clock before a lunar eclipse brings about the end of us all.
Roth establishes his Amblin bona fides almost immediately, tossing out “Space Man From Pluto” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” references to warm the hearts of middle-aged geeks. The film is set in 1955, but feels more like that particular 1980s brand of ’50s nostalgia than the actual period, with scenes of Lewis at school only a Jean Shepherd voice-over away from “A Christmas Story” territory. There’s plenty of Ovaltine, along with a Captain Midnight secret decoder ring and if the school looks anachronistically integrated, then that’s just another reminder that this is all the stuff of charming fantasy.
I’ve never been a big Jack Black fan, but I do get a kick out of him in children’s movies, where his oversized mugging plays like a little kid’s idea of what an adult would act like. He’s got a surprisingly great rapport with Blanchett, the two affectionately rattling off insults at one another with a cozy, lived-in warmth that seems sincere. Of course, our trio forms a makeshift family while doing battle with flying jack o’lanterns that puke pumpkin seed paste and other assorted, just-scary-enough gross-outs. And while I personally could have done without the winged topiary lion pooping brown leaves I also realize that’s the scene my niece and nephew are gonna be talking about clear through Christmas dinner.
“The House With A Clock In Its Walls” neither overstays its welcome nor spends too much time setting up the presumably inevitable sequels. There’s a modesty to the film that’s becoming, and a nimbleness to the wit suggesting Roth could have a big future in children’s entertainment if he so desires. I guess in retrospect his skill with a PG-rated picture shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, as his R-rated films weren’t exactly “adult,” either.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.