"The House with a Clock in Its Walls" may be director Eli Roth's inaugural excursion into the family-film arena, but for the filmmaker behind such hyper-violent fare as 2006's "Hostel
," 2007's "Hostel: Part II
," 2015's "The Green Inferno
," and 2018's "Death Wish
," one can sense the fun he's having in twisting mass-market entertainment to satiate his rebellious sensibilities. Gateway horror full of punchy repartee and an empathetic soul, the film nevertheless involves necromancy, blood rituals, guts-spewing jack-o'-lanterns, and a room filled with creepy mannequins. In an era when movies made with children in mind play it too safe, this one harkens back to a time and tone similar to 1984's "Gremlins," 1985's "Return to Oz," and, perhaps most surprising of all, Bob Balaban's 1989 pitch-black suburban satire "Parents." Signs of what feels like studio-mandated pandering creep in from time to time, and it is for this reason it ultimately cannot match the success of these aforementioned pictures. Still, Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke's (2005's "Boogeyman
") blending of the spooky and sweet is infectious.
The year is 1955 when 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) arrives in the Norman Rockwellian town of New Zebedee, Michigan, heartbroken and in need of a new family. Following the untimely deaths of his parents, Lewis is welcomed in by his mom's estranged brother, Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a quirky parlor magician (and maybe a little more) whose gated mansion is filled with clocks. None of these timekeeping devices, however, can drown out the one Jonathan and neighbor/best friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) desperately wish to find, a ticking monstrosity hidden in the walls by the house's previous owners, deceased warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and wife Selena (Reneé Elise Goldsberry). Desperate to fit in at school and impress cool kid Tarby (Sunny Suljic), Lewis turns to performing an unthinkable ritual in the local cemeterya fateful decision which places himself, Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman, and perhaps the whole of humankind in existential danger.
"The House with a Clock in Its Walls" is true to the spirit of its source material, John Bellair's 1973 gothic children's novel. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, the film endears first and foremost through its irrepressible protagonist. A lover of words whose favorite book is the dictionary, Lewis may not be the best at sports but his cleverness and indomitable spirit run circles around the rowdy, insensitive boys in his gym class. Struggling to deal with the loss of his parents, he finds in Uncle Jonathan and Florence Zimmerman a different kind of family he didn't realize he needed. Owen Vaccaro (2016's "Mother's Day
") is a wonderful find as Lewis Barnavelt, so earnest and natural and authentic he instantaneously proves lovable in the role. Jack Black (2015's "Goosebumps
") and Cate Blanchett (2018's "Ocean's Eight
") are just right as Jonathan and Florence, warm presences whose playfully salty banter could only come from that of two people who love each other (platonically, Florence specifies). There are brief mentions of Jonathan's childhood status as the black sheep (which he chooses to call black swan) of his family, but why he remained estranged from his sister is never broached, leaving one to form his or her own conclusions. Florence, meanwhile, identifies with Lewis in more ways than he can imagine; as insights are gradually divulged about her tragic past, Blanchett classes up the joint with a wistful sense of pathos.
"Florence, I really have to pee," Jonathan says as the high-stakes climax gets underway. It's a funny statement because it's so true; while attempting to save the world, who has time to make a bathroom pitstop? "The House with a Clock in Its Walls" engagingly balances darkness and light, and while the narrative proves relatively slight even with the threat of cataclysmic destruction hanging over the characters' heads, there is also plenty of atmosphere and ingenuity to go around. Jonathan's 100 High Street mansion is an achievement in mischievous production design and art direction, while a set-piece involving demonically animated mannequins is an eerie delight. More practical effects and less reliance on CG creations would have been preferable, however, while a living topiary prone to leaf-blowing bodily functions is unnecessary, a dumbed-down running gag in a film otherwise embracing smarts and a joy for knowledge. It is this last element, especially, which strikes as tacked-on; it's simply too juvenile to match the wit and maturity of all that surrounds it. Feeling much like the Amblin production it is, "The House with a Clock in Its Walls" will no doubt captivate its core audience in spite of its rockier excesses. For younger viewers interested in dipping their toes in the lighter side of the horror genre, look no further.