Many filmmakers have the versatility to successfully branch out into unfamiliar territory, yet in the case of Eli Roth, The House With a Clock in Its Walls is out of tune.
Perhaps Roth, who gained notoriety more than a decade ago for grisly horror movies such as Cabin Fever and Hostel, deserves credit for trying something new. But this effects-laden venture into kid-friendly Tim Burton territory is all spectacle and no substance.
The story takes place in small-town Michigan in 1955, where 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is a precocious orphan who arrives to live with his eccentric uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), who’s agreed to become his caretaker.
After being introduced to Jonathan’s titular abode, overflowing with vibrant colors and anthropomorphic furniture — along with a flatulent topiary griffin — the socially awkward youngster learns that his uncle is a warlock. And that his kind but demanding neighbor (Cate Blanchett) is a witch, albeit a friendly one.
They’re both puzzled by the aforementioned clock, which constantly ticks even though it can’t be seen. Turns out it was planted there as part of a revenge scheme by Jonathan’s bitter former colleague (Kyle MacLachlan) who has become disfigured. If it’s not destroyed, mass destruction could result.
Lewis is meant to be the audience’s window into this strange world mixing fantasy and reality, of course, and expressive youngster Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home) winds up playing the straight man for the slapstick chaos around him.
Black is an ideal fit as the jaunty ringmaster of sorts, although Blanchett is mostly squandered in a thankless supporting role, providing some helpful witchcraft and spouting pearls of wisdom that include lecturing Jonathan for his parenting skills.
The screenplay by Eric Kripke (TV’s “Supernatural”), based on a 1973 novel by John Bellairs, manages some scattered laughs and nostalgic kicks but lacks consistent charm or suspense. There’s not much reason for emotional investment in the quirky characters or their plight.
Meanwhile, the phantasmagorical imagery will likely be too frightening for small children, and not scary enough for the adults who accompany them. As the film lumbers toward an arbitrarily assembled special-effects bonanza of a finale, the visuals tend to overwhelm.
The film tries to lure the Harry Potter audience into a throwback tale of magic and sorcery in a funhouse-style setting. However, it too often simply grinds its gears.