'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' Review: Eli Roth's Family-Friendly Frightfest Unfortunately Flounders

Eli Roth delivers his first PG-rated film with The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a spooky, amusing horror story for younger viewers. While there's plenty of gothic atmosphere, and two delightful performances from Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, Roth never quite figures out how to make The House with a Clock in Its Walls tick.

After over 15 years in the movie business, torture porn purveyor Eli Roth may have found his true calling: making family films. Roth trades in his blood and guts for Amblin-infused whimsy with The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a frothy, effects-laden creepfest with its heart in the right place. Here is the type of movie tailor-made for weirdo kids who obsess over Halloween and find all things morbid fascinating. Had I seen this film as a child, I likely would've swooned over it. Unfortunately, I'm now a cold-hearted adult, so many of House with a Clock in Its Walls charms failed to win me over.

Adapted from the book by John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in Its Walls follows 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a lonely kid in the 1950s who goes to live with his uncle after the sudden death of his parents. His Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) is an eccentric but friendly weirdo who takes Lewis back to his huge, creepy, gothic mansion. There, Lewis encounters Jonathan's neighbor and friend, Florence (Cate Blanchett), who seems to be just as eccentric as Jonathan. And then there's the house, which is the most eccentric figure of all – a living, breathing entity, full of magical, moving items and spooky nooks and crannies. Lewis learns quickly that this is no normal house, and Jonathan and Florence aren't normal adults. They are, in fact, powerful witches, able to conjure up magic with the snap of their fingers.

Lewis is eager to learn the magical family business, and Jonathan is happy to oblige him – up to a point. But Jonathan and Florence are also hiding something. There's a mysterious ticking somewhere within the walls of the house – a ticking created by the house's former occupant, powerful warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, delightfully dastardly). Isaac is dead, but Jonathan and Florence both remain in fear of him – and for good reason. Before his death, Isaac engaged in dreaded "blood magic", assisted by his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry, stealing the show with what brief screentime she has)– who was also a witch, of course.

As The House with a Clock in Its Walls unfolds, it becomes obvious where all this is going. Lewis' curiosity about magic, and his desire to fit in, will backfire, and result in dark forces threatening the world as we know it. The only way to save the day is for Lewis to help Jonathan and Florence work their magic. It won't be easy, though. Jonathan isn't that powerful, and while Florence was once one of the best witches in the world, she's stopped using her powers in the wake of a family tragedy.

Roth balances all of this mayhem admirably, bringing an old school sensibility to the proceedings. One of House with a clock in Its Walls greatest features is its commitment to practical effects. Compare this to another Jack Black horror-themed family film – Goosebumps. There was a movie overloaded with unconvincing CGI. Clock in Its Walls has its fair share of CGI as well, but Roth is smart enough to balance it out with the type of practical horror effects that make everything seem genuine. When a character rises from the dead late in the film, the actor playing him is wearing actual ghoulish make-up, and even spits grave dust from his mouth. It's a wonderful touch, as is the fact that Roth isn't afraid to go dark.

There are several legitimately creepy scenes here – scenes brimming with black magic and dripping blood. Most studio pictures for young audiences shy away from this sort of stuff – Roth leans into it. Jon Hutman's production design is appropriately gothic, creating settings that invoke The Addams FamilyA Series of Unfortunate Events and even Back to the FutureRogier Stoffers' cinematography is shadowy, cut through with occasional beams of light. In short, The House with a Clock in Its Walls looks great.

But the script, by Eric Kripke, is a hinderance. While there's plenty of energy here, the story and, most of all, the dialogue, never clicks. Kripke rushes things; cuts corners. A plotline involving Lewis trying to impress a kid at school never works, and a reoccurring scenario in which Lewis is visited by the ghost of his dead mother feels forced. Also not helping matters: Owen Vaccaro's performance as Lewis. I don't want to pick on Vaccaro too much, because acting isn't easy, and he's still young. But there are some child actors who have a gift, and some who do not. Vaccaro falls into the latter category. He doesn't deliver dialogue, he spits it – almost all his lines come out rushed and garbled, and it often sounds like he's tripping over his own tongue. This isn't entirely Vaccaro's fault – Roth should've seen the problem and shot more takes to ensure he got the best performance possible from Vaccaro. Sadly, that didn't happen.

Fortunately, Vaccaro is backed-up by Black and Blanchett. Black is having a blast, seemingly channelling Orson Welles in F is For Fake, constantly winking at the audience. He's a likable lead, and it's fun to watch him work. Blanchett is one of the best actresses working right now, so it should come as no surprise that she's great here. She brings a droll energy to her part, and she and Black play off each other quite well. Some of the funniest moments in the film arise when Blanchett puts on a silent, deadpan stare in reaction to something outrageous Black has done.

I could easily see The House with a Clock in Its Walls eventually blossoming into a cult classic – the type of average film that nonetheless inspires enthusiasm in fans by its atmosphere alone. It's a kind of modern-day Hocus Pocus in that regard. But I wanted more. The ingredients are here to craft the perfect horror film for young viewers – and yet it never works out. Still, it's hard to dislike a film in which Cate Blanchett head-butts a living, goo-spitting Jack-o'-lantern and then mutters, "I hate pumpkins."

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10