America’s sweetheart Eli Roth, usually occupied with horror films about torture and cannibalism, has made a seasonal horror romp for the family. The story is based on the John Bellairs series of young adult novels that predated the likes of Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events, while informing their themes. It comes from a handsomely illustrated line of books featuring the grotesque cross-hatching styling of Edward Gorey. It has a received a fair adaptation, where it borrows from all the movies based on the books this series once inspired.
It’s the story of young, newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who goes to live with his uncle Jonathon Barnavelt (Jack Black) after his family dies in a car crash. His uncle’s a warlock and parlor magician living in an old Gothic home, often accompanied by neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). When the boy arrives in New Zebedee, Michigan, he first notes the great arrangement of pumpkins out front. “You sure love Halloween.” No, he keeps them out all year. This is a magic place with seasonably magical principles. Black and Blanchet exchange barbs and flirtatious insults throughout, rising so far above the call of duty their acting transcends the work of the story. In their Gothic manor, there’s a doomsday clocked buried somewhere in the walls, and the place is filled with a magical countenance: cuckoo and grandfather clocks cover the Tell-Tale Heart-esque ticking that fills Jonathon with such dread, as he cannot locate its source. A phenomenal set provides everyday items with life, such as a chair that acts as a family dog or a gargantuan gargoyle griffin that wanders around the backyard. Everything is informed with a deep ‘50s aesthetic, where Ovaltine shakes and Americana are the order of the day.
The clock problem started about a year before, when Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) sourced a magical spell which, coinciding with his death, created a skeleton key that could unlock the doomsday clock and set the world back to zero. Eli Roth goes above and beyond with this character, going into full-blown suggested Nazi Occultism as an exercise of the plot. He flexes his horror concepts often, belying his Amblin intentions with a sense for shock and awe. When the story focuses on the family’s magic, it can take wondrous turns, while also deflating with Roth’s bad habit of a scene ending too early or going too long, just in case you were unsure something wasn’t settling right with the material. It has a few moments of truly effective horror, perhaps outreaching its audience while also playing a bit too maudlin when it turns to Lewis’s struggles at school. These parts never totally connect in any meaningful way. It does make slight attempts, with a class crush vaguely interested in his magic and a bully he’d like to impress taking advantage of the situation and manipulating Lewis into awakening Isaac Izard.
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are the heroes of the day. Their performances glimmer with the knowing craft of actors trying not to make a mess of a shambolic production. Yes, Jack Black is having a hell of a year. His career has entered its second act – with a fine performance in Jumanji (channeling a teenage girl who’s taken over his body almost too convincingly) and his best dramatic scenes yet in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (he’s clearly got a knack for choosing roles based on titles, doesn’t he?). There’s a moment in The House with a Clock in Its Walls where Jack Black is turned into a baby, rendered to a crying fetus with a full-grown head of hair. The CGI is really bad! It’s a horrible idea and only the second time this year we’ve witnessed a well-known actor turned into a man-baby! It also broke our theater into fits of laughter. When our main trio are attacked by grotesque floating pumpkins, with Cate Blanchett impaling them with magic and exploding pumpkin guts and seeds all over the screen, it reaches great heights of seasonal magic, and ensures its placement as an immensely watchable autumnal treat.
Sometimes we wish it converged more often with Edward Gorey’s inspiration. We look at the original art and find his striking cross-hatching evokes certain terror, the harsh lines and contrasting strikes creating often fearsome illustrations. It is too bad that The House with a Clock in Its Walls doesn’t have the same eye. Instead, its resplendent with color – the costuming for Blanchett’s wonderful purple dresses, Jack Black’s “it’s not a robe it’s a kimono” robes. It takes on something of its own aesthetic spirit this way. It’s too bad the shots run so tight when you’re enjoying its best moments, with a bustling plot that plows right on through and runs just a touch too long.
The fact is, Eli Roth’s a talented guy. Usually a bit of a gore hound, it turns out he works exceptionally well within the restrictions of children’s fiction. Sometimes our most provocative artists just need a limitation and someone to say no, so their creativity gets channeled another way. It’s worked this time. If the awful title and inexact marketing doesn’t ruin its chances, this may achieve what it so desperately wants: to be included in your Amblin marathons during this time of year.