By Chic DiCiccio
Any scary movie designed for kids walks a fine line between jump scares that last for two seconds and horrific moments that cause endless nightmares. If it’s cheesy and not frightening enough, it won’t even phase an 8-year old kid. If it’s traumatizing, parents aren’t going to be happy about that same kid awake all night while paralyzed with fear.
Who would have thought that director Eli Roth would hit the sweet spot with “The House with a Clock in Its Walls?” It turns out that the guy responsible for splatter-filled horror like “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel” was perfect for this fantasy movie based on a 1973 John Bellairs novel.
“The House” is plenty fun, well-acted by its stars, and just creepy enough to entertain all ages.
The movie begins in 1955 after 10-year old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) moves to New Zebedee, MI after his parents are killed in a car accident. His estranged uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), is his only remaining family and becomes his legal guardian. Lewis quickly meets Jonathan’s neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett), who specializes in side eyeing Jonathan while insulting his clothes, jet black beard, etc.
Lewis quickly discovers that his new home is not only a weird haunted house, but Jonathan is a warlock and Florence is a witch. The two of them have been tasked with finding a non-stop ticking clock hidden in the house by Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a now dead evil warlock.
This leads to a mix of funny moments, mostly with an armchair that acts like a dog, and some creepy scenes featuring animatronic mannequins with disturbing heads.
Eric Kripke’s script is predictable and, at times, entirely too focused on the spooky clock MacGuffin. The plot overstays its welcome and the movie declines as storylines are wrapped up. “The House” does much better when focusing on Jonathan’s awkward encounters with the public (particularly his neighbor, played by the great Colleen Camp) and Florence’s playful banter.
Anyone familiar with Jack Black knows how he can quickly devolve into an annoying version of the same role he’s played multiple times. This is not that version of Black and he’s actually quite good in a role that suits him perfectly.
He’s clever and doesn’t rely too heavily on slapstick for laughs. There’s even a fairly dramatic scene that Black carries on his own that doesn’t fall flat.
As with most of her roles, Cate Blanchett simply crushes it. This is not a typical role for her and the weirdness of it is usually reserved for someone like Helena Bonham Carter. She’s quirky, sharp tongued, and becomes the action hero by the end of the movie.
It’s harsh to report that the young actor Owen Vaccaro is not very good. He’s decent at times, but his crocodile tears are not only phony, they are quite annoying. He’s at his best when simply staring with wide eyes at Black or Blanchett while they put on an acting clinic.
It’s hard to believe, but Eli Roth has directed an appealing movie for both adults and preteens.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a “horror” movie for kiddos that begged to see “It” but were denied so they wouldn’t be mentally scarred for the next decade.
There’s not one naughty word or a drop of blood, which is a rarity in itself.
At a time when the movie biz is all about franchise building, it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever for “The House” to be successful enough to bring Black, Blanchett and Roth back for more.