There is a scene early on in Eli Roth's The House With a Clock In Its Walls where young Owen Vaccaro's Lewis Barnavelt has arrived at the decrepit and mysterious home of his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), under whose care he now finds himself after the tragic deaths of his mother and father in a car accident only days earlier. Uncle Jonathan, whom we will soon learn is not just eccentric but an actual warlock, immediately scoffs and nearly tosses aside the boy's beloved Magic 8-Ball, that goofy yet endearing child's toy that first surfaced in the 1950's and was the last gift that Lewis received from his late parents.
Understandably, Lewis was weeping during this scene.
Not so understandably, I was laughing.
And so it went for much of The House With a Clock In Its Walls, yet the latest in an increasingly long line of YA novel adaptations and a sort of pre-Halloween devilish film that hopes to be a treat but is really much more of a trick. Directed by the acclaimed horror director Eli Roth, who also directed the recent Death Wish remake along with well known projects like Cabin Fever and the Hostel films, The House With a Clock In Its Walls is a PG-rated wannabe family film that is too scary for young children, not scary at all for older children, and so woefully lacking in anything unique or inventive that adults will likely be struggling to stay awake.
While the film has quite a few more problems than simply a grossly miscast child lead, the simple and painful truth is that much of the failure of The House With a Clock In Its Walls drops squarely on the trembling footsteps of Owen Vaccaro, whose major cinematic claims to fame up to this point have been those mostly insipid Daddy's Home films. While the timid, disorganized script from Eric Kripke based on the novel by John Bellairs doesn't do him any favors, Vaccaro's performance here resembles a sort of Young Sheldon before Sheldon discovered that personality is actually a good thing. Vaccaro's at his best in the film's later scenes, when his childlike precociousness can shine but he struggles mightily in the film's more emotionally substantial first half.
While one could potentially argue that Jack Black is on autopilot here, that's not particularly a bad thing for an actor who could pull off this kind of eccentric, larger than life character in his sleep. For whatever reason, Black's usual goofy charm is toned down here and one can't help but wonder if he wasn't toning it down in an effort to match rhythm with Vaccaro's nearly one-note performance. Black fares better opposite the always delightful Cate Blanchett, here cast as Florence Zimmerman, Jonathan's best friend and a witch whose powers have largely faded away into oblivion as a result of a long ago tragedy from which she's never healed. It's Blanchett, somewhat surprisingly, who ultimately makes The House With a Clock In Its Walls a watchable film. Blanchett is such a committed actress that even when the script fails her, which is often, she manages to bring it to life with energy and zest and emotion and more than a little hilarity.
More Blanchett, less Vaccaro would have made The House With a Clock In Its Walls a much better film.
The story, which is far more convoluted than it needed to be, centers around the former owners of Jonathan's house, the once famous turned infamous Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his lovely wife Selena (Renee Goldsberry). Both were killed while casting a powerful spell in the home, but before they died managed to plant within the house a, you guessed it, a clock within the walls for rather evil purposes.
Basically, The House With a Clock In Its Walls comes down to "Find the clock. Save the universe."
Of course, we all know that's not exactly going to be easy.
Produced by Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, The House With a Clock In Its Walls would have benefited greatly from a little bit of that Spielbergian touch. It's as if Roth could never quite decide his target audience, the end result being that he ends up pretty much alienating everyone from the too scared young kids, the unafraid older kids, the adults who buy the tickets, and even faith-based audiences likely to be turned off by an occasionally really dark obsession with a young boy learning magic and an evildoer inspired by the demon Azazel.
Note to Eli Roth: For future reference, it's pretty darn hard to snag the family moviegoing dollars when you insist on having kids perform satanic rituals.
I'm just sayin'. Ya' know?
There are moments, however, when the inventive and visually compelling Roth strikes gold and one can't help but think there's some really great ideas desperately trying to rise to the surface here.
Unfortunately, they just never make it.
The house in a film like The House With a Clock In Its Walls should be another character, yet too often it's nothing more than curious windowdressing. Instead, Roth spends too much time with over-sized lion topiaries that aren't quite potty trained and evil jack-o-lanterns. Even the attempt to weave into the fabric of the film animations resembling the novel's noteworthy Edward Gorey animations seems mostly forced and unlikely to register as anything significant.
Lacking anything resembling a sense of wonder or, I dare say, magic, The House With a Clock In Its Walls barely rises above mediocrity on the strength of Blanchett's inspired performance and the film's inspired and entertaining visuals mostly present in the latter half when even Vaccaro's performance manages to display a little spark. American moviegoers have long loved this incarnation of Jack Black as an actor, a sort of guy next door meets twisted weirdo that you want to invite over for dinner.
Will that like that same character in a film that never lives up to its potential?
I guess we'll have to wait and see. For this critic's preference, however, I think I'll cleanse my palate and go watch the Hostel films again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic