That director Eli Roth, he of “Cabin Fever,” the “Hostel” movies and the coiner of the term “torture porn” is making a film about a warlock and a haunted house should come as no surprise. That it is a spooky PG rated movie for kids is. Based on the children’s classic “The House With A Clock In Its Walls” by John Bellairs with illustrations by Edward Gorey, the film stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.
The movie begins with 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) losing his parents. Sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a wizard who lives in a rambling old house—the locals call it the “slaughter house”—with a mysterious tick-tocking heart. “There’s a clock in the walls,” he says. “We don’t know what it does, except… something horrible.” It’s a place of wonder and magic, complete with tentacle monsters—“He’s safe as long as he’s fed,” Jonathan assures the youngster—and deadly secrets. “It’s scary,” says Lewis. “I see things out of the corner of my eye and I think Uncle Jonathan is hiding something from me.”
Next door is witch Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), a friendly face and substitute mother figure for young Lewis. Stumbling into this world of magic Lewis unleashes holy heck when he accidentally awakens Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), Jonathan’s former best friend and warlock, from the dead. The trio must stop Isaac from locating the sourcing of the house’s mysterious doomsday clock, whose tick-tock is a threat to all of humankind, but the onus is on the preteen. “I can give you the right books, teach you the right spells,” says Jonathan, “but that last 1%, that’s up to you.”
“The House With A Clock In Its Walls” is a fantasy-based thriller with gothic flourishes for kids raised on the “Goosebumps” books. Imagine a mix of “The Addams Family” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and you’ll get the idea. For the most part it is harmless Halloween fun, more spooky than scary, although Isaac’s reanimation scene, complete with white, rotting flesh and stray maggots and the barfing pumpkins may inspire nightmares for the younger set.
Roth pays attention to the details—the set decoration and costumes are terrific—but draws out the action in the first half of the movie. Black and Blanchett chew the scenery and are clearly having fun but the tick-tocking clock seems to be running extra slow in the movie’s set-up scenes.
Once “The House With A Clock In Its Walls” kicks in, it’s good, silly fun, a throwback to the goodtime horror films of 1980s Amblin flicks.