Review: ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ (creepy yet clunky)

An interesting production design stretched thin over a kindergarten plot.

In the mid 1950s, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) travels to Michigan to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) after the passing of his parents. Soon after meeting neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), Lewis discovers his uncle’s old house is magical… as are both Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. Intrigued and eager to learn, Lewis scours books on real magic to become a warlock like his uncle, but he soon discovers there are secrets that remain hidden inside the creepy eclectic house… such as the source of that mysterious ticking from within the walls.

Boasting a cool Halloween aesthetic with a theatrical stage production design, the film promises slightly spooky family fun that feels a bit like a PG version of The Haunting mixed with a bit of Harry Potter… not to mention directed by horror-auteur Eli Roth and written by “Supernatural” creator Eric Kripke. With Blanchett’s presence and Black’s shenanigans, it sounds like the perfect place for a weird kid to own their weirdness. The trailers, however, hint that more is being promised than what’s being shown; is this all a trick, or are the best treats in store for those gambling the price of a ticket?

If there was a role Jack Black was born to play other than a wannabe rock god with a demonic guitar pick, it would probably be Uncle Jonathan the Warlock. Cate Blanchett slips easily into the role of the mysterious Mrs. Zimmerman, a spellcaster with a penchant for purple. And there’s Lewis: the main character played by a kid actor who doesn’t seem to be up to the task of being our weird hero. It’s not that he’s bad; he’s just rather boring and uninteresting, and the rest of the cast is just as inexplicably dull. Every moment Black and Blanchett are off-screen feels like an eternity until they return.

Only the casting of Black and Blanchett elevate this ho-hum spooktactular over similar forced-fare like Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul but not enough to endorse it. The pace of House is anemic, neither fulfilling enough with magic stuff nor in the unpopular decision resolution. Everything promised seems to fall flat, from the big reveal to the inevitable defeat of evil. It’s sad, too, because it was a neat idea with some interesting visuals that flounders in execution.

Yes, they called male witches “warlock” again; forgive them of their ignorance, but don’t forget what they squandered here. Couldn’t they get a better Lewis? If they could come up with six more-interesting kids for the cast of It, surely there was one more out there waiting for a chance to have a franchise built around them.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor, language, and a hedge with IBS.

Two skull recommendation out of four

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