At first glance, “The House with a Clock in its Walls” appears to be the next Goosebumps movie. It has Jack Black, a creepy house, magic, and kids. All the essential ingredients for a sequel to the 2015 movie. But once you notice it’s the first non-R-Rated film to be directed by Eli Roth, it’s immediately apparent this is something else. What kind of story would it take to draw him out of the gore and into the realm of PG “family films?”
The 1973 book on which it is based was written by John Bellairs and is the first in a series of 12 featuring the young boy Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro). After his parents are killed in an accident, Lewis is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan(Jack Black) in what may or may not be a haunted house. Jonathan is the black sheep (or is it swan?) of the family so Lewis has never met him. He’s only heard stories that his mother would recount from their childhood. With pilot goggles permanently affixed to his head and a bad case of logophilia, Lewis is a bit of a social outcast as well. To help ease the nervous tension between the boys, the story supplies us with the delightfully purple Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Although forever kind to Lewis, her and Jonathan trade snarky barbs that are equally flirtations and sharp. As with all of these stories, the stage is set for the strange boy to become the unlikely hero the adults desperately need.
It’s at this moment the house begins to behave in unexpected ways and there’s a noticeable, ominous, ticking that is coming from somewhere inside the walls. Is it haunted? Is magic at play? It ends up being something a bit darker. Jonathan is a Warlock, Florence is a witch, and their powers lean heavily on the occult. What’s a bit surprising here is this isn’t the fictional magic of the “Harry Potter” world, but instead they are using actual symbology, terminology, and demonology references. We’ve seen this in many films and TV shows before, but it can be a bit jarring in a kid’s movie. The upside of this is Eli Roth isn’t pulling many punches. This film is legitimately creepy and unsettling at times, and although there are a couple instances of bathroom-humor, the dialog hasn’t been dumbed down to what studios think a children’s comprehension level is.
Roth has clearly made the film he wanted to watch as a child. It’s creepy, yet fun, it doesn’t condescend to it’s intended audience and it has an interesting visual style. These days, Eli Roth is doing Tim Burton, better than Burton.