“Eli Roth” and “family film” are probably the last four words anyone, especially fans of Roth’s hard-R, exploitation genre efforts, would expect to read in a sentence, but Roth (Green Inferno, Knock Knock, Hostel, Cabin Fever) has done the near impossible: He’s semi-successfully reinvented himself as the family-friendly, kindler, gentler Spielberg-inspired filmmaker he apparently always wanted to be. An Amblin produced adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 novel for young readers (a nameless marketing executive hadn’t coined “Young Adult” yet) – with Goth-inspired illustrations from Edward Gorey – The House with a Clock in Its Walls delivers CGI-aided, kid-friendly, blood- and gore-free shocks and scares mixed in with the usual supply of stock story elements, an eccentric, but not too eccentric, adventurous lead character, and familiar, if not exactly unwelcome, comfort-zone performances from Jack Black and Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett.
Set in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, ‘50s-era Michigan, The House with a Clock in Its Walls centers on preteen Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, the opposite of his overweight, clumsy literary counterpart), the recently orphaned nephew of part-time warlock Jonathan Barnavelt (Black). While the elder Barnavelt, a onetime black sheep of the family, went off to study as a professional magician under the tutelage of Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), the other members of Lewis’ family lived ordinary lives of unquiet non-desperation. The loss of Lewis’ parents in – you guessed it – a tragic car crash (they’re all tragic) leaves Lewis in his oddball uncle’s care. Barnavelt openly flaunts his oddball, outsider, conformity-adverse nature by meeting the bookish Lewis at the train station in a kimono, a fashion faux pas that gives Lewis pause, but it’s nothing compared to what awaits Lewis in his uncle’s bigger-on-the-inside house, a magical mystery tour of unexpected delights (e.g., a sentient armchair, a flatulent-prone topiary) and the occasional fright (creepy clown dolls, ambulatory pumpkins), including, but not limited to, the titular, ticking clock inside the walls (easy to hear, harder to find).
The elder Barnavelt soon introduces Lewis to his platonic lifetime companion and next-door neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a powerful, good witch who, like Lewis, has suffered unimaginable tragedy (except we can imagine it). Eager for age-appropriate companions, Lewis temporarily befriends Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), a popular greaser and future student body president with a hidden agenda or two. Willfully blind or ignorant to Tarby’s potential duplicity, Lewis breaks his uncle’s rules to impress Tarby. An easy hire given his background as the creator and onetime showrunner of the CW’s long-running Supernatural series (13 seasons and counting), Eric Kripke puts his vast knowledge of the End of Days, Judgment Days, and random apocalypses to good use here: Lewis doesn’t exactly unleash Hell on Earth, but he comes close and that should be more than enough for casual moviegoers looking for easily digestible, semi-scary fun (emphasis on “fun”) for the whole family.
That still leaves two questions unanswered: (1) the how and why of Roth’s involvement as director and (2) Blanchett’s too. Roth might be more easily explained as a segue across sub-genres of horror, but the same can’t be said for Blanchett, though maybe the status of The House with a Clock in Its Walls as the first book in a six-book series and thus a potential franchise starter might have something to do with Blanchett’s involvement (staying commercially viable often means playing the franchise game). Then again, maybe she was a fan of the book series in her preteen years and always wanted to be a part of a big-screen adaptation. Maybe a close personal and/or professional relationship with Black, Roth, or both contributed to her decision to join the cast. Whatever the reason(s) or whether she’s “slumming” beneath her prodigious talents, Blanchett certainly doesn’t sleepwalk through her performance as Mrs. Zimmerman. Blanchett perfectly pitches her performance slightly, perfectly below (high) camp. Black’s broad, buffoonish turn isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but it fits the general tenor and overall mood of Roth’s surprisingly capable, occasionally skillful adaptation.