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27 Sep 2018

Spooky Sparingly: Despite Some Fine Moments, 'The House With a Clock' Fails Due to a Weak Second Half

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Owen Vaccaro and Jack Black in The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Owen Vaccaro and Jack Black in The House With a Clock in Its Walls.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls feels like a mishmash of family-friendly Halloween tales—and it’s a messy mishmash at that. It wants to be Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and Goosebumps all rolled up into one wacky movie. It’s all a little too much, and it falls apart in its final act.

Granted, it’s based upon a novel published in 1973, so perhaps the aforementioned tales were actually inspired by author John Bellairs. As for the cinematic punch, however, this movie adaptation definitely pulls a lot of style choices from films that came before it.

If your kids go to this one and then request permission to watch other films by the director, beware—for it is directed by Eli Roth, frequent purveyor of gross-out torture porn like Cabin Fever, Hostel and The Green Inferno. While Roth shows he can conjure enjoyable elements within the realm of a PG rating, he can’t quite wrangle the story together to deliver something that makes sense. While the film does contain some genuinely creepy stuff, many of its attempts at frights with living dolls and scary pumpkins feel recycled.

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett deliver fun performances as a warlock and semi-retired witch, but much of the film rests upon the young shoulders of Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, an orphan sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) in a creepy house. Jonathan and neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann (Blanchett) eventually start coaching the misfit Lewis in the powers of witchcraft—an offense that would get child services on their asses, even back in the ’50s, when this film is set.

Vaccaro looks like he’s a capable actor; for much of the film, he’s good and quirky. However, there are moments when he’s called upon to really emote, and some of them go way over the top. Keep in mind that Roth hasn’t worked much with kids in his career (although one must give him props for the action he got from the cool karate-kicking kid in Cabin Fever). Perhaps a director who has worked more with kids might’ve found a way to pull Vaccaro back a bit.

Black delivers a quintessential Black performance, featuring manic glee spiced with warm smiles and occasional glimpses of rage. It’s like Black performances before it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I especially liked the whistling ode to Tenacious D. Blanchett does admirable work, too, although her character is a bit underdeveloped.

Kyle MacLachlan co-stars as a magician responsible for putting a powerful clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house—a clock that could contribute to the apocalypse. MacLachlan doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and he is usually under heavy makeup, but he does well in his shots. There’s an evil underbelly involving his character (including an encounter in the woods that pushes the PG rating, because it is legitimately freaky), and it had me wishing more of the movie was about him. There’s a terrifyingly dark and intriguing movie to be made based on his character’s backstory, which is mostly glossed over.

Much of the film looks dark and under-lit. While some of the visual effects are good-looking, including animated stained glass, some of the practical effects are a little too goofy to gain true scares.

Black and company occasionally make the movie watchable, and even enjoyable. Unfortunately, things go flat in the second half, and you’ll find yourself checking the clock on your wrist more than worrying about any clock in the wall.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is playing at theaters across the valley.

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