The House with a Clock in Its Walls was one of those pre-YA books that I remember as a kid. I may or may not have read it, but the title was certainly familiar. Horror-gore director Eli Roth must have also fondly remembered books like this from his childhood, and decided to dip into the classics for his first foray into family friendly thrills and chills. The trick for these kinds of films is balancing true scares with wide-appeal humor and drama that will entertain the tots without scarring them for life.
Jack Black, as the eccentric uncle who lives in said house, seems like he would be the perfect mugging actor to pull off such a trick. The house itself is a creepy old mansion, and when orphan Lewis is sent there to live with his uncle after his parents die in an accident, he can’t help but notice it is full of clocks. The clocks have been collected to mask the bigger nagging problem, the mysterious ticking in the walls. Uncle Johnathan and his friend and neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett), self-proclaimed warlock and witch, are desperate to solve the mystery.
The film is CGI-rific, with its haunted house stylings and cool visuals, from morphing stain glass windows to a genuinely creepy room full of dolls (straight out of The Conjuring) that hide a portal to a hidden room. The aforementioned topiary lion was cool until it kept repeated farting/pooping leaves for comic effect. There are even some sinister, toothy (and of course vomiting) Halloween pumpkins that may seriously be too scary for younger viewers.
But around all this magic is an uneven movie that seems predictable even as it takes us to new, wild places (try to unsee a baby Jack Black). Black, who is made for the type of role where he can wildly gesture and make goofy faces, falls flat, struggling with the clunky writing and directing. Faring better is Blanchett, who comes and goes, but is always welcomed in her purple outfits and neatly kept hair. Then there is the kid, young Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, who is… fine. I hate saying bad things about child actors, but after seeing kids in fare like Stranger Things and IT, you realize what a great child actor can bring to a film.
It’s too bad that the movie ends up feeling rote for the genre. With the right amount of camp, it could have become a hoot of kiddie-horror. With the right about of spooky gravitas, like Something Wicked This Way Comes, it could have been a genuinely good creep-fest appealing to all ages. Instead, the kiddie classic ends up being just another forgettable mish-mash kid movie that will ultimately have a short shelf life.