By Laurie Coker
Just in time for Halloween and tendering a reasonably friendly fair, The House with a Clock in the Walls, starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchet, takes viewers back to the 1950’s and offers up thrills and laughter. Director Eli Roth manages an entertaining mix of nightmarish jump-worthy fear-factors and silly, satisfying slapstick. The visual trip back to 1955 is spot on perfect, and the imagery is stunning. Ultimately, however, the paper-thin story keeps the film from rising to the quality of its exceptional cast and special effects.
Young talented actor Owen Vaccaro stars as Lewis Barnavelt, an orphan who goes to live with his quirky uncle, Jonathan (Black) and under the watchful eye of Jonathan’s equally odd neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchet). Nerdy Lewis, notices immediately that something is amiss his uncle’s haunted-looking house, but has to deal with his own issues at school. Soon, though the house, filled with ticking clocks, takes on a life of its own and Lewis learns Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman’s secrets and the history behind the clock in the wall. Lewis, in his efforts to fit in at school, breaks his uncle’s one rule and manages to awake the dead – Jonathan’s ex-partner in magic, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a man with a bone (in important form) to pick, literally with mankind.
Fortunately, the leading entertainment comes in the design of the Victorian house and its grounds, including with a chair that acts like a dog, a lively topiary that periodically poops out dirt and leaves. Roth’s care for re-creating the 1950s period includes a delightful reference to a prize that once came in Ovaltine, perfect costuming and beautiful sets. Roth, known for his turns in the graphic horror genre, reins it in quite a bit, making The House with a Clock in the Wall land somewhere between frightening for under eight-year-olds and just on the edge of too childish for teens and adults. In this, the film falters a bit. My granddaughter, age 7, covered her eyes often, while my 14-year-old grandson rolled his eyes almost as often as he laughed. Apparently, he’s grown out of pee and poop jokes.
The cast pleases. Black and Blanchet both have excellent comic timing. She outshines him, with droll one-liners and barbs between them. Blanchet, bragging about her magical prowess, says “I melted Salvador Dalí’s watch once, right off his wrist,” never bats an eye. The banter between her and Black is made all the most enjoyable because she delivers lines effortlessly. Her wonderful violet outfits complement her perfectly purple-hued hair. The all-to-cute Vaccaro holds his own, and as a team, the trio delights. They drive the limited story, even managing to present a heartfelt theme about love and family.
Perhaps in part, because of Roth’s usual horror romps, parts of The House with a Clock in the Walls are a bit frightening for little ones. In fact, it kind of flounders between its efforts at nostalgia (perfectly realized in The Christmas Story) and desire to be a family Halloween classic. Still, the cast and visuals and wild antics make it worth the cost of matinee tickets. It earns a C+ in the grade book. Not much is wrong with a little romp through goofy asininity loaded with catching imagery and oddball characters.