In its best moments, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is reminiscent of 2015’s Goosebumps. It’s PG horror for kids that are looking for an introduction to the horror genre without anything that would scar them for life. When Eli Roth’s movie is clicking, it manages to be delightfully spooky as it uses 50s-style horror to provide good, unsettling scares that kids can enjoy and parents can appreciate guilt-free. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between as the movie plods through uneven pacing, half-hearted metaphors about the power of being different, and weak VFX. None of the film’s weaknesses are enough to sink it, but the glimpses of a better movie leave you feeling that The House with a Clock in Its Walls could have been so much more.
Set in 1955 in the small town of New Zebedee, Michigan, the story follows young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who, after losing his parents in car accident, goes to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a mysterious mansion. Lewis finds his uncle, and his uncle’s best friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), to be a bit eccentric, but soon learns that his uncle is a warlock and Florence is a witch. That’s all well and good, but the house itself is haunted by the presence of its former owner and Jonathan’s ex-partner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who died when a spell went wrong. When Lewis accidentally raises Isaac from the dead, the young aspiring warlock must work with Jonathan and Florence to stop Isaac’s plan, which involves a mysterious clock he’s hidden somewhere inside the house.
There’s some really interesting subtext swirling around The House with a Clock in Its Walls that the film never really explores in any detail. At most, you’ll get a nice, pat message about how it’s good to be different and there’s nothing wrong with being weird. But the exposition, especially as relates to the war and the pasts of Isaac and Florence, carry some interesting weight about how war itself, like magic, is transformative and unnatural. While one could argue that a movie for children doesn’t need to carry subtext about the nature of war, thoughtful subtext is usually a strong hook for adults as we’ve seen with Pixar movies. Even if kids wouldn’t pick up on it, going a bit deeper would make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a richer experience for parents bringing their little ones for a tame fright-fest.
As it stands, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is mostly fine for what it is. Black continues to be one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation, bringing warmth and humanity to his roles where others could easily just phone in a performance in material they thought was beneath them. It’s the mark of a true professional that Black treats movies like this, Goosebumps, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle with the same care he treats serious movies like Bernie or Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, and his performance has you rooting for Jonathan even when he’s acting misguided or selfish.
Blanchett is excellent, as always. In an odd way, she’s kind of the heart of the movie and a part of the richer subtext that never really comes to life. And yet what’s frustrating is that the film constantly uses her as an exposition machine, and because Blanchett is such a great actress, the movie kind of gets away with it. No one’s going to put Florence up with Blanchett’s roles in Blue Jasmine or Carol, but it’s the kind of straightforward part where you see just how good Blanchett is at everything she does. There are actors who are only as good as what’s on the page, and then there are actors who transcend what’s on the page. Blanchett is the latter.
When you’ve got great actors like Black and Blanchett, as well as some pretty outstanding production design, and the good intentions of making a PG horror movie, The House with a Clock in Its Walls feels like it should be better than it is. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, and yet it lacks a spark to give it a distinct personality and daring. It’s a difficult balance to make something daring when it’s a family film, but Roth plays it a little too safe, so that while it may have some scares for its intended audience, it largely falls flat for everybody else.