It's pretty much gone out of fashion now, but there was a time when children's films didn't just play with comedy and drama, but also with horror. Classics like 'Gremlins', 'The Goonies', even 'Jumanji' understood that kids are just as capable of getting a thrill from a good scare as any adult, especially when calibrated for their maximum enjoyment. This seems to be the principle behind 'The House with a Clock in Its Walls', a family fantasy adventure with perhaps one of the strangest collections of talent you'll see in a major studio film this year.
It's 1953, and orphaned ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, 'Daddy's Home 2') is going to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, 'Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle', 'Goosebumps'), whom he has never met before. Jonathan lives is a strange old house filled with unusual oddities, and has an equally eccentric neighbour, Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, 'Carol'). Very soon, Lewis discovers that his uncle is actually a warlock, and with Mrs Zimmerman's help, Jonathan begins to teach Lewis the magical arts. However, something sinister seems to be going on in the shadows of the house, possibly related to a strange ticking sound in the walls.
Based on the classic children's novel, 'The House with a Clock in Its Walls' is an odd little film, not just for the bizarre pairing of Blanchett and Black, but for having hardcore horror director Eli Roth ('Death Wish', 'Hostel', 'Cabin Fever') at the helm. The latter decision does work in the film's favour, with Roth employing his understanding of the genre to make sure that the creepier elements of the film, while never being too much, still feel genuine. At its best, 'Clock' feels like a throwback to 90s kids films like 'Casper' (1995), mixing a palpable sense of supernatural menace with humour and sincerity. Lewis is the classic kid on the sidelines, trying to find his place in this new world without his parents to guide him. His journey to find his power as a junior warlock is intrinsically linked to his finding his own unique voice and embracing his peculiarities, and the film never waters down those concerns or the difficulties Lewis faces, especially in his complicated relationship with classmate and school jock Tarby (Sunny Suljic). It takes all of this seriously, and it works in the film's favour.
It also looks wonderful, with wonderfully detailed and eclectic production design from Jon Hutman, who fashions the house as a companion to iconic haunted houses like Hill House in 'The Haunting' (1963). When it works, 'Clock' has a rollicking, irreverent energy to it, often resulting in some genuine thrills, laughs and sincerity.
And yet, for all that it has going for it, the film never works as well as it should. To begin with, the adaptation from 'Supernatural' creator Eric Kripke stumbles over an often complicated narrative and, while it identifies Lewis' journey as its spine, it never quite knows what to do with it. For every moment that works, there's about five that don't, often resulting in the film spinning its wheels where it really shouldn't. It also never finds the same kind of balance with the humour as it does with the scares, often resulting in lame or ill-judged jokes that land with a real thud, and it's a real pity to see a film that doesn't look down on its audience for its jump scares, go for the lowest common denominator with its humour. As the film moves towards its finale, it stumbles further with complicated exposition, and while the basic premise of the ending is pretty solid, neither the screenplay nor (or maybe consequently) Roth's direction are able to make it work, to the point where the film almost feels like it gives up.
For every moment that works, there's about five that don't, often resulting in the film spinning its wheels where it really shouldn't.
Another issue is Jonathan - both the character and Black's performance. As written, Jonathan is a bit all over the place, and the self-conscious oddness of the character causes Black to rely on his worst traits as an actor - overacting and awkwardness. It's a pity, because he probably would have been a good fit with better writing and much stronger direction, but in the end, much of the fault in 'Clock' actually falls down to how misjudged everything with Jonathan is. That said, Black and Blanchett actually make a really great team, clearly having a ball bouncing off one another, and Black's best moments are those he shares with Blanchett. Of course, Blanchett is a delight as Mrs Zimmerman, the matriarchal heart of the film, and it's clear pretty quickly why she chose to do the film. The character is fun, irreverent and sassy as hell, and it's great seeing one of the best actors in the world having this good a time.
The real heart of the film though is Owen Vaccaro, who is wonderful as Lewis. On top of the fact he has a great fearless quality and spars beautifully with the more experienced actors, he's also absolutely adorable and wins you over the minute he appears on screen. His performance is genuine and intelligent, and even when handling some of the clunkier moments, he still shines. Blanchett and Black also clearly adore him, and both allow him to become the centrepiece of the film.
It's a pity that 'The House with a Clock in its Walls' doesn't work as well as it should, because there's a really great children's film in there. Eli Roth may not get everything right, but what he does shows an astute understanding for what this film could have been, and there's a real sincerity to it. I probably still would have really enjoyed this as a kid, but I can't imagine it would have made much of an impact. Some elements linger, especially the design and the performances from Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro, but 'The House with a Clock in its Walls' is only just fun enough to make it not totally forgettable.