There’s been much ado about schlockmeister Eli Roth’s unexpected venture into ‘80s throwback kids’ movies with his tween-lit adaptation of John Bellairs’ novel The House With a Clock in its Walls. To be sure, it’s an odd choice for a man who made his name defining the torture porn subgenre. But what’s potentially more surprising than its director is the fact that The House with a Clock in its Walls is actually pretty tolerable, as far as such things go. Roth’s exploitative sensibilities seem to have taken a back seat to a kind of peculiar cinematic nostalgia, like a director trying to recapture some of the magic that got him into movies as a small child. And in this regard, he mostly succeeds — I have no doubt that this would have been my favorite movie of the year if I were still 10 years old.
The film falters in its problematic third act, but I’ll get to that in due course. For at least the first 70 minutes, Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke have taken an undeniably familiar story and embellished it with some genuinely creepy atmosphere and effective scripting that elevates what could have been a rote repetition of the films that inspired it, creating a finished product that is among the most cogent work either have produced to date. Taken on those terms, The House with a Clock in its Walls is a stylish and offbeat adventure fantasy with some lightning-quick dialogue and a distinctly twisted sensibility.
But then there is that third act, along with myriad, albeit minor, other missteps along the way. Roth’s set pieces lack the grounding necessary to be truly compelling and the budget to be anything close to visually awe-inspiring, while his attempts to pander to a dramatically younger audience too often teeter on the juvenile. A great deal of compelling worldbuilding and plot development give way to inane and overly predictable plot turns that undermine Kripke’s best efforts to maintain a suitably spooky tone, leading to a convoluted climax that feels perfunctory given the buildup it receives.
Stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett have an affable chemistry and carry the film’s odder elements without overplaying the weirdness, even if child leads Owen Vacarro and Sunny Suljic can’t quite keep up their end of the bargain. Kyle MacLachlan steals the show in a rare heel turn, but he’s buried under layers of prosthetics that don’t do him any favors. And the house itself, possibly the most prominent character in the film, is somewhat overpopulated by quirky inanimate objects springing to life, including a dog-like recliner and a topiary griffin with a bad case of irritable bowel syndrome.
If The House with a Clock in its Walls proves little more than a passably palatable stab at the sort of post-Potter pabulum pandering to prepubescent proto-goths that seems to be in fashion these days, it’s a film that will appeal successfully to its target demographic and represents a largely convincing departure for Roth. It may not stand the test of time, but then again, neither did many of the films that inspired it. Taken at face value, there are worse kids’ movies in theaters — with far worse to come — but The House with a Clock in its Walls will likely find more longevity on streaming outlets every Halloween than it does in its theatrical run.