Eli Roth might seem like a strange choice to adapt a PG-rated version of John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but Roth has always had a childish streak to his films. His gory films like Hostel and Cabin Fever indulge juvenile curiosities, with Roth himself going over-the-top to childish, ridiculous level. While Roth has shown an admiration and reverence for the horror of the 80s, like Cannibal Holocaust and Evil Dead, The House with a Clock in Its Walls plays with a different type of 80s nostalgia. In his first kids movie, produced by Amblin Entertainment, Roth attempts to make his own those version of those early Amblin films, movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins, or The Goonies, which could meld horror elements with childhood adventure. Roth’s first film for a younger audience plays like an experiment, as he tries to see how far he can push his usual button-pushing, yet still make an accessible kids film.
As with many darker YA adaptations, The House with a Clock in Its Walls begins with an orphan. Ten-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is a loner who loves obsessing over words, whose parents just died in a car accident. Lewis is sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a gothic house that seems inspired by the Disney ride The Haunted Mansion. Lewis knows something strange is going on in the mysterious house, with its ticking clocks everywhere, and the rumors he hears at school that someone was murdered in his new home. Lewis comes to discover that his uncle is actually a warlock, and their neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is also a witch who no longer uses her powers.
The wizarding pair teach Lewis how to become a young warlock in this magical house. Chairs act like dogs, stained glass windows change depending on the day, and a griffin topiary in the back yard just won’t quit shitting leaves everywhere. Jonathan’s house also hides a ticking clock that cannot be found, left by the house’s former occupant and Jonathan’s former magic partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). At first, the clock just seems like an item left to slowly drive Jonathan insane, but it could be a much greater tool of dark magic that could destroy the world.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls – written by Supernatural’s Eric Kripke – is all about embracing personal weirdness. As Mrs. Zimmerman says when handing out her unusual chocolate chip cookies, “It’s the nuts that makes things interesting.” The same is true with The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a film that embraces just how odd this combination of cast and crew truly is. Roth doesn’t skimp on the darkness that has dominated his films for years. The House throws in blood sacrifices, demon possession, the Holocaust, and necromancy. Even for YA fantasy, this is pretty dark stuff.
While The House’s boldness in its subject matter is admiral, it also makes the film tonally all over the place. The film is trying to balance the humorous mugging of Jack Black with a surprisingly dark story for a kid’s film and an underlying story about how World War II changed people. The House is ambitious in everything its trying to juggle, yet these shifts in style can often lurch the film in its tracks.
Kripke and Roth also seem far more adept when The House focuses on its adult stars, instead of the main story of Lewis. Black and Blanchett are wonderful when they get a chance to banter with each other, and MacLachlan is delightfully hammy as the undead magician. Vaccaro is defined by his awkwardness that makes him unique, yet Lewis’ eccentricities only really work when they are centered around his induction into the world of magic, and not when he’s in the real world of school.
Roth and Kripke have a hard time keeping The House on the rails when it digs deeper into the house’s mysteries and Izard’s involvement. The story is shrouded in secrets, until the third act answers everything with info dump after info dump. This final act is also where Roth kicks up the horror, which does somewhat balance out the exposition being dropped all over the place, but also shows that Roth is more comfortable with scares than actually building characters and a strong story.
Unfortunately, The House with a Clock in Its Walls does often feel too much like a more violent Halloween Disney Channel film, or like Black’s other kids horror series, Goosebumps. But with Roth’s experimenting outside his comfort zone, a surprisingly game cast, and an ability to embrace the darkness, The House with a Clock in Its Walls becomes slightly better than the usual mundane YA fantasy adaptation. It’s the nuts that makes things interesting.