The House with a Clock in Its Walls review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
In the same year that horror-loving director Eli Roth directed a film where Bruce Willis spilled blood and bullets on the streets of Chicago, he has additionally created a PG horror film for kids with The House With A Clock In Its Walls. It sounds odd that a director could go from exploding brains to exploding pumpkins, but Roth found a way to keep himself boiled down to the level of family entertainment. Too far down, as it turns out, as though he only read half the book on Robert Rodriguez’s guide to making genre pictures for kids.
Made under the Amblin banner of movies for children, it's a fantasy fit for the kids. Set in the 1950s, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is a newly orphaned genius boy that has come to stay with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in his spooky house of secrets. For any other kid, Jonathan’s home would be a paradise for featuring no rules, no bedtimes, and freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies for every meal. But Lewis knows there is something more going on in the house. He suspects as much when the glass painting on the wall mutates overnight, the chairs start moving on their own, and his dreams feature the ghost of his dead parents giving him very specific advice.
Lewis is astounded to discover that the root of the weirdness is magic itself. And he wants to learn all, to become just as impressive a warlock as Jonathan, or possibly better given Jonathan’s rusty fingers with conjuring spells. Maybe as powerful as their neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett), a well-dressed witch with an accessory of an umbrella that doubles as a wand, and possibly a shotgun depending on how she wields her magic. With his newfound abilities, Lewis sets about becoming the less meek kid in school, impressing bullies and girls. But that’s not all. There’s also a mysterious clock hidden inside Jonathan’s walls that keeps ticking, driving him mad. And there’s Jonathan’s old nemesis of his ex-magic partner played by Kyle MacLachlan that has a doomsday plot up his undead sleeve.
The movie has all the elements of pleasing spooky film, but ultimately never comes fully together, existing as a series of amusing scenes that don’t have much of a flow. The best scenes are without question the back and forth between Black and Blanchett, firing snarky comments with witty delivery at a zippy pace. I wish the rest of the film could have had this intelligence and timing. The closest it comes is with the many scary setpieces of mechanical puppets come to life and evil pumpkins that barf orange innards. But there are so many little flaws holding the film back from gaining any momentum. The biggest direction being the acting, where Black with temporarily gain and lose an accent, and Owen Vaccaro has a serious issue with his wailing being far too over the top to buy the somberness. And why did they have to give Kyle MacLachlan a tinny demonic voice alteration when it clearly doesn’t work?
These are all nitpicks that took me out of the picture, but I can’t deny that there’s just enough here that kids will dig it far more than the adults, per the Amblin formula. There’s a handful of magical scenes, a moral core about being different, and an abundance of low-brow jokes that are just vulgar enough to have the kids laughing as much as they’ll be spooked. They’ll be entranced enough that they won’t notice how there are too many plots spinning that either go too slow or peter out of the picture. And for that I can’t help but admire the film like Halloween night, an event that only kids will have the most fun experiencing.