Daniel Radcliffe may have moved on, but the Hollywood studios certainly haven’t. They continue trying to replicate the astonishing success of the “Harry Potter” movie series by adapting other children’s books with similarly magical stories, hoping they too will take off into the box office stratosphere; repeated failure has not deterred them. The latest example is Eli Roth’s adaptation of a 1973 book by John Bellairs (illustrated by Edward Gorey).
Roth, of course, specialized in grisly-comic horror movies (“Cabin Fever,” the “Hostel” franchise, “The Green Inferno”) before going a bit more mainstream with his recent remake of “Death Wish,” so “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” represents a further change of pace for him. It’s about ten-year old orphan Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who goes to live with his oddball uncle Jonathan (Jack Black).
Jonathan, an inept would-be warlock, lives in a creaky old Michigan mansion previously owned by a malevolent couple, Isaac and Selena Izard (Kyle MacLachlan and Renée Elise Goldsberry), who placed a huge clock somewhere in the walls. The contraption is methodically ticking down to the point that, we eventually learn, will allow its master to bring about the end of the world.
A crisis comes when Lewis, whom Jonathan has begun training in apprentice sorcery and who is desperate to make a friend of classmate Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), uses a book of necromancy to conduct a ceremony in the local cemetery that revives Isaac’s corpse in time for the very moment the clock will count down to zero—an imminent eclipse—and Isaac promptly acts to bring about the cataclysm. Lewis, Jonathan and their neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), the good witch who lives next door, frantically attempt to avert the catastrophe.
Roth has fashioned “Clock” pretty much in line with the template of Black’s previous foray into this sort of juvenile special-effects territory, “Goosebumps” (which itself has a Black-less sequel coming out next month). The major difference is that the earlier movie depended on an avalanche of splashy computer-generated effects. There are some of those here too, but they’re less garish and more “awe-inspiring,” and most of the visual peculiarities have a distinctly old-fashioned, tactile feel (walking chairs, for example)—down to the ghoulish makeup MacLachlan has to wear through most of his scenes.
That’s actually kind of charming in this day and age; the picture’s real defect lies on the narrative side. The plot, which ultimately comes down the machinations of an evil demon called Azazel (Christian Calloway, made up to look like something like Gollum), makes virtually no sense, and the script keeps adding further wacky complications as it rushes into its final reel. (Jonathan goes through a transformation toward the close, for example, that seems totally illogical from any perspective—an example of something done simply so that the effects team can show off.)
Then there’s the emphasis on nostalgia, which will probably appeal more to baby boomers than the kids they bring along to the theatre with them. The story is set in 1955, and little Lewis is almost always seen wearing aviator’s goggles, which—it is eventually explained—is the result of his fascination with “Captain Midnight,” a kids’ show that was running on CBS at the time. That links up with the concept of “indomitability” that’s his mantra and that he passes along to others. For adults of a certain age, all this might strike a chord—as will the plot’s goofy use of a toy decoder contained in a bottle of Ovaltine, the TV show’s sponsor—but to today’s youngsters it will mean nothing. At one point Jonathan remarks “This is no place for kids,” and you might be inclined to agree with him. (If you’re going to show a 1955 movie theatre, moreover, why not have the marquee advertise actual movies of the year rather than dumb ersatz titles?)
All of which might matter less if little Lewis were a more ingratiating tyke than he is here. Vaccaro is a nice enough looking kid, but he definitely lacks charisma. Black, meanwhile, works overtime to make his character endearingly weird, but it’s a hopeless cause: Jonathan just comes off as strident. Blanchett is even worse off, being forced to play insufferably prim and stiff. (The supposedly lovable insult banter between Florence and Jonathan certainly lacks the cheeky panache it’s meant to have.) One has to sympathize with the supporting cast, especially MacLachlan, who has to sneer like a villain from a forties serial and not only wear that awful makeup but recite lines like “I was dead before I was dead.”
The technical side of “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is accomplished, in an amusement-park sort of way—production designer Jon Hutman, costumer Marlene Stewart and the effects and makeup folks have all done their jobs skillfully in line with the overall visual concept—and Rogier Stoffers’ cinematography is efficient, as is Fred Raskin’s editing, even if he can’t entirely gloss over the script’s inanities. As for Roth, the movie at least demonstrates that he can make a picture without resorting to grotesquely gory, torture-porn clichés.
In the end, though, this cluttered, busy but dispiriting family movie is like an extravagant cinematic fun house equipped with everything money can buy, except the fun. Roth’s “House” is no Hogwarts.