Watching The House With A Clock In Its Walls feels like flipping through the cooky 150 page children’s books a grade schooler buys at their library book fair. You can practically see the peanut butter and jelly stains at the edge of every frame. In other words, it is an astronomic departure from the previous work of the notoriously blood-hungry Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno). One might expect the transition from torture porn to trick-or-treat to be jarring, but Roth’s stylish, heart warming and campy tribute to the Amblin era makes this bedtime story horror all the more delightful.
From the moment the recently orphaned Louis (Owen Vaccaro) moves into his mysterious warlock uncle Jonathan’s (Jack Black) gothic mansion, the gorgeous production design leaps off the screen. It feels akin to a pop-up book, with every inch of the frame inviting you to look. The setting is unapologetically playful, and as soon as we meet Cate Blanchett’s Florence, an elegant witch enjoying her retirement, and watch her and Black trade insults in what amounts to a magic user’s version of Grumpy Old Men, we know that the actors are in on the joke too.
Black is always at his best when he’s allowed to go full ham, and he infuses every moment of goofy sorcery exposition with his trademark zeal. Since he is a big kid himself, we buy into how thrilled he is to be teaching an eight year old how to read ancient scripture and throw electricity. Blanchett isn’t given quite as much to do, essentially acting as Black’s moral center while her arc buffers in the background, but she brings her typical grace and wry wit into every scene she’s in. However, everything would be DOA if Vaccaro was unable to anchor it, and while he may not fit some people’s definition of what a charismatic child actor should be, he does what the role requires of him. Louis is gawky and awkward, traumatized over losing his parents and terrified to interact with anybody who isn’t a goofy movie star. He whines, wails and screams a whole lot, but in context, his behavior makes complete sense. It’s fun to watch him come into his own as the film goes on, and while he doesn’t make a full fledged transformation by the end, he’s certainly on his way.
Roth does hit some stumbling blocks in his attempt to adapt to this more whimsical material. He’s working with an extremely standard screenplay by TV writer Eric Kripke, that often screeches to a halt so that the characters can dump exposition about the wizarding world on each other. Roth’s flourishes completely freeze in these moments, resuming once the action starts to get more dynamic. He also seems confused about how to integrate his darker sensibilities into all of the whimsey. There are some fun gross-out moments that add to the tension but also some awkward plot elements involving World War 2 that even allude to the Holocaust that are never fully committed to or explained. He clearly wants to take risks, but isn’t quite comfortable in how far those risks can go. There’s also some distracting and extremely juvenile bathroom humor that clashes with the more quaint and clever character-based jokes that make up most of the film.
While its entirely possible that The House With A Clock In Its Walls could end up going down in history as another YA franchise misfire, Roth’s execution places it a cut above films like Cirque Du Freak or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. For someone who has created such nihilistic work, he remains committed to keeping his film as adorable as possible. While it’s far from a slam dunk, it could definitely live on as a sleepover stable, which I suspect might be a much kinder audience than the ones who head to The House With Screens In It’s Walls.