Eli Roth probably seems like a strange choice to direct a kids’ movie. He’s not the first horror filmmaker to make the transition, but films like “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel” and “The Green Inferno” are so astoundingly grotesque that adding a PG-rated adaptation of John Bellairs’ novel “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” to his résumé looks, at a glance, like some kind of prank.
But Roth’s films have always had a streak of immaturity about them, as though Roth was so eager to make friends that he’d do anything to get your attention, even poke a dead body with a stick. It makes sense that he could tell a good, family-friendly campfire story if he reined in his harshest storytelling impulses. But it’s impressive that, with “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” he’s connected with his own inner weirdo, found the still-beating heart inside him, and decided to nurture it — instead of ripping it out and eating it.
“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is the story of Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, “Daddy’s Home 2”), a young orphan in 1953 who gets sent to live with his eccentric uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), who lives in a giant spooky house filled from top to bottom, for some reason, with ticking clocks. Jonathan lives alone but always seems to have the same houseguest, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a purple-clad widow who has a plate full of cookies handy for Lewis to munch on at all times, and pointed insults to trade with Jonathan.
It doesn’t take long for Lewis to discover that his uncle’s house is haunted, and that Jonathan and Florence are, respectively, a real-life warlock and witch. But that’s not a problem, and this house is a haven for weirdos. At least, it has been ever since its previous owner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) died and left a mysterious clock hidden somewhere within the walls, which has an unknown, sinister purpose, and which no one is able to find.
“House” follows Lewis on his journey to build a new family, learn the art of magic for himself, make new friends in school, and eventually save the world from a magical MacGuffin. The plot is comfortably familiar, the performances are enjoyably quirky and the horror is just creepy enough to entertain kids at a Halloween slumber party without giving anyone nightmares.
In other words, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is exactly what it looks like, and more or less exactly what it should be. It’s the perfect double feature with “Goosebumps,” another surprisingly effective family-horror hybrid starring Jack Black.
If the actor is actively attempting to model his late career on Vincent Price’s, the world might just be better for it. He’s an amiable guide into the world of the supernatural, and he knows when to turn off the charm and scream in genuine terror, so his audience can, if only for a moment, take the story completely seriously.
Roth’s film (written by “Supernatural” creator Eric Kripke) falls short of Halloween classic territory, but not by much. There’s an eagerness to get to the magical good stuff in “House,” but the rush does the film no favors and undermines how effective it can be as a meaningful story, or even just a scary one.
For example, magic isn’t introduced with much fanfare. The story tries to push young Lewis into a frightful state early on, to the point where he doesn’t trust his uncle and suspects genuine malevolence is afoot. But Roth’s film tips its hand too early for Lewis’ freakout to feel natural. Early scenes end with Jack Black casually talking to a lovable anthropomorphic easy chair, for crying out loud. We know Lewis isn’t in the Overlook Hotel; he’s living in Pee-wee’s Halloween Playhouse. The film shows us too much, too quickly, and undercuts the tension as a result.
It’s a problem that has other, unfortunate side effects. Roth seems so eager to send poor Lewis on his perfect, magical adventure that he neglects to illuminate the child’s ongoing mourning process, even though the whole plot revolves around that. Lewis makes an astoundingly illogical decision halfway through the film, which kicks the plot into high gear, and the reason is because he’s desperately lonely. But the scene where he makes this mistake comes not long after a cheerful montage of Lewis’ two magical Auntie Mames giving him all their love and attention and teaching him real-life sorcery. He’s not exactly being neglected. Roth’s film undercuts the protagonist’s motivations, so they ring false.
And yet, by the end, the film matures. Vaccaro reveals himself to be an impressively expressive actor, selling impassioned outbursts and screams of terror as well as any adult. And although Black and Blanchett are trapped in quirky caricatures, they manage to wring some genuine heft out of their tragic backstories. “House” gets its act together, and it earns its big emotional climax.
Just as importantly, the film earns its moments of weirdness. Much of “House” plays out like a straightforward YA power fantasy, in which a child loses everything he cares about but gets an exciting new life in return. It’s a storyline that can often seem generic, but Roth clearly loves this haunted Amberson Manor of a house, in which every room is full of spooky knick-knacks and creepy automatons, the front lawn is always populated with jack-o’-lanterns, and the backyard has a winged-lion topiary pouncing around like a misbehaving kitten.
At its best, “House” has cheesy fun with these locales. You may not have known you always wanted to see Cate Blanchett head-butt a haunted jack-o’-lantern into oblivion while exclaiming “I hate pumpkins!” but you did, and Eli Roth’s film is the only place to get it.
Then again, you’re also going to watch that topiary lion poop dead leaves. A lot. And often. Sometimes the easiest jokes are just too danged easy.
“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is easily Eli Roth’s best motion picture, and that’s not an attempt to damn the film with faint praise. It’s a spooky and amusing piece of family-friendly Halloween cinema, sharply produced and mostly effective, told with skill and panache.