‘THE House with a Clock on its Walls” is based on the 1973 children’s book by John Bellairs. It’s a suprising diversion for the master of gory slasher flicks, Eli Roth, who’s best known for directing blood-spattered flicks like “Cabin Fever”, “Hostel 1 & 2” and “Green Inferno”.
Set in 1955, this is a family friendly movie that combines humor, fantasy and horror elements. The central character is a 10-year old orphan boy, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro), who lost his parents in a car crash and is now sent to a town in Michigan to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black).
Things are quickly established as strange from the start, with his uncle living in something that looks exactly like a creepy haunted house and seems to be hiding something with his neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). It turns out Uncle Jonathan is a warlock with good intentions and Florence is a good witch who has formidable powers of her own.
They are looking for something in the house that used to be owned by a magician, Isaac Izard (Kyle Machlachlan). This is a magical, powerful clock hidden somewhere in the house. It ticks continuously and this can lead to doomsday if it would fall into the wrong hands. His uncle agrees to train Lewis how to deal in witchcraft and awaken his dormant supernatural powers, making him a Harry Potter wannabe. This can surely come in handy especially when he is being bullied by some of his nasty classmates in school.
In his efforts to impress a friend, Lewis tries to perform magic by raising the dead but only succeeds in releasing the evil Isaac Izard from his grave. Isaac and his wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldberry), then combines forces with a battalion of fantastic and scary creatures who help them fight Lewis, his Uncle Jonathan and Florence in their efforts to save the world from the hands of the diabolical couple who are determined to finish their work.
Child actor Owen Vacarro anchors the story with his mourning for his lost parents and his touching quest for love and friendship. Jack and Cate know they are just supporting Owen and both give wonderful performances in their respective roles. Jack knows how to hold Jonathan’s eccentricities at bay and never goes beyond the bounds of rational human behavior just to be funny. Cate gets to wear some great costumes and mixes her portrayal of Florence with some camp spiced up with emotional anguish after she reveals that she herself has lost her own family. It is very amusing when Jack and Cate exchange good-natured insults with each other.
Of course, the film won’t work without the CGI effects and the movie magic effects are truly quite well-conceived and executed. We particularly like the armchair that has a life of its own and follows Lewis like a dog, and also the evil pumpkins or jack-o’-lanterns that harass Owen, Jack and Cate spewing gooey slime all over them to prevent them from re-entering the house.
Roth proves here that, as a director, he is certainly up to the task when they got him to make movies for kids. The next horror-fantasy flick for kids that will be shown soon is “Goosebumps 2”. If you don’t remember it, the first one also starred Jack Black.