SOMETIMES when you see a name like Cate Blanchett attached to a kids’ movie, you scratch your head.
What’s she doing in this? The House with a Clock in its Walls doesn’t naturally sit alongside films like Carol, I’m Not There and Notes on a Scandal.
Then you remember that she has four children — and actors often say they want to make a movie or two their kids can actually watch.
Or maybe she wanted to work with director Eli Roth, an aficionado of straight-up horror flicks like Hostel and Cabin Fever. So while he’s not dabbled in kid-friendly scares before, Roth’s skill in making your skin crawl translates well here with a movie that often chills but hopefully won’t give the little ones too many lingering nightmares.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is based on John Bellairs’ book from 1973, about a 10-year-old orphan named Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) who, after the death of his parents, moves in with his strange uncle Jonathan (Jack Black).
Jonathan lives in a creepy old house where there isn’t just a clock in its wall — there are clocks everywhere — on tables, on walls — tick-tocking away in cacophonous unison like a malevolent, Hitchcockian telltale heart.
On his first night, he’s woken up by a sound outside his bedroom. Peeking out his door, he sees his uncle with his ear to the wall. There are clearly secrets afoot.
Jonathan is a warlock, though, admittedly, not a very competent one, and his neighbour and friend, the very well-postured Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett) is a great witch but whose powers are on the fritz.
They have an amusing ritual of slinging semi-good-natured insults at each other, but stress they’re not “kissy face” friends.
Together, they tell Lewis about the previous owner of the house — a dark warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) who was killed by his own nefarious magic in the middle of a potentially world-ending spell.
Isaac may be dead but his presence is constantly lurking in a house that already has an armchair that behaves like a golden retriever, a room full of creepy Tim Burton-esque animatronics and stained glass windows that ominously change.
The clock in its walls is Isaac’s and it’s counting down to something.
Lewis is a weird kid who wears aviator goggles on his head but like every child, he just wants friends, which leads to some very bad decisions.
Blanchett and Black both do an admirable job, properly committing to roles that not all actors who appear in these types of movies would bother to do, and Blanchett has an emotional scene that’s quite touching.
But you never quite believe child actor Vaccaro is as awkward as he’s meant to be — in the books Lewis is described as “chubby”, which Vaccaro is not.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is a passable kids’ movie that’s trying to replicate a sliver of the success of Harry Potter or the Lemony Snicket franchises with its blend of the magical and the macabre. The books it’s based on number up to 12 so there’s more source material to mine if it catches on.
It works if all you’re looking for is a movie you can take your children to see, to while away an afternoon (though anyone in the single digits might find some scenes a tad too terrifying). Some of the set pieces are exciting (malicious pumpkins with sticky bile! A griffin topiary that farts!), and there are some thrills to be had.
But it’s a pretty down the line flick that, without a kid dragging you along, you don’t need to put on your list.