Having enjoyed the young-adult novel, I was surprised to learn that Eli Roth would direct “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.”
He’s the horror-meister behind such bloody and brutal films as “Hostel” and “The Green Inferno”; but thankfully, Roth clamps down on the gross-out factor in this entertaining version of Bellairs’s beloved book.
Set in the 1940s, the novel is both low-key and creepy; I feared Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke would stamp out Bellairs’s gentle humor and humanity with over-the-top computerized hijinks. But if we ignore about 15 minutes of outlandish mayhem near the climax, the film actually improves on Bellairs -- maintaining his comedy and old-fashioned charm while providing a much more substantial back-story.
The tale involves Lewis, an orphaned pre-teen taken in by his mother’s brother. Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) is a part-time magician who spends his nights searching for the titular clock, which was left in his mansion by an earlier owner for apparently nefarious purposes.
In the evenings, Lewis enjoys the comical banter between Jonathan and an eccentric neighbor (Cate Blanchett) -- but he struggles to fit in at school. Desperate to impress, he teaches himself magic and takes a pal to the local cemetery, where they actually manage to raise the dead -- accidentally setting off events that will threaten the entire human race.
One of the film’s triumphs is Jon Hutman’s meticulous production design: Though it shifts the setting ahead several years, the movie’s period detail is flawless; even the occasional computer graphics blend in nicely -- and the nostalgic aura helps offset the ill-advised bathroom humor and late-film shenanigans (barfing pumpkins, peeing babies and a giant purple snake) that throw an unnecessary bone to modern-day tastes.
The film is also scary.
At times -- especially the unnerving scene in Germany’s Black Forest -- I wondered if it might be too frightening for its intended pre-adolescent audience. But they didn’t seem to mind; there was even a smattering of applause as the credits rolled.
That’s partly due to an effective coda that offers a lovely resolution to Lewis’ odyssey. Indeed, the film ties up a bunch of loose ends that aren’t even present in Bellairs, providing more organic motivations and interconnections -- not to mention a handy twist or two.
Black exudes a winsome mix of kindly and kooky, while Blanchett works her usual magic in fleshing out a fully human and very sympathetic friend. Newcomer Owen Vaccaro is excellent as Lewis, and so is Sunny Suljic as the boy’s friend Tarby.
Bellairs parlayed his young-adult debut into a successful franchise -- and with its solid weekend performance, this film may do the same.
Whether Roth wants to stick with the pre-teen milieu remains to be seen; but let’s hope any sequel stakes a claim to this cast -- and to Hutman and Kripke as well.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls,”
directed by Eli Roth
Run time: 104 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language