“Children’s gothic” as a genre can be a lot of fun. There’s creepy houses, orphans, a variety of weird archetypal mentors and antagonists, dark fantasy, and a coming-of-age adventure. The House with a Clock in its Walls, based on the novel by John Bellairs, has all of these. With stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett on board, and an experienced director helming, what could go wrong?
From the outset, I think we should applaud the studio’s bravery in green-lighting The House with a Clock in its Walls (it was Spielberg’s Amblin, by the way, a man very familiar with this sort of material). This is a hard sell. For a family movie, it’s rather dark. Some of the scares will rule out the younger kids, and some of the content, such as the necromancy angle, complete with blood magic, will make parents a bit squirmy. Jack Black provides some goofs, but the movie hasn’t gone full throttle for laughs, rather tending more to the spooky side. Oddly, with Halloween only a few weeks away, it doesn’t even seem to be marketed as a seasonal experience (despite the hostile, vomiting jack-o-lantern attack).
The main misfire, however, comes from the plot. Where other films in the genre, such as Coraline (2009) or A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) are driven by a compelling quest, The House doesn’t really have much to drive it. Our young protagonist Lewis wants to be a warlock, but for not much reason than that it looks fun. He wants to have friends and a family, but seems to do pretty fine on his own, and little screen time is given to the development of his relationships with his new surrogate parents (Black’s Uncle Jonathan or Blanchett’s Mrs Zimmerman), or with the kids at school. He vaguely wants to know why there’s a clock in the walls of his new home, but how scary is a clock, really?
With a wide and varied display of magical surprises to offer, it’s easy to assume that production design and effects are where director Eli Roth aimed most of his attention. But the fantasy elements are not actually that interesting either, though they are expertly constructed.
When it comes down to it, The House with a Clock in its Walls lacks conviction. While it’s taken an insipid middle ground tonally, Roth, a competent horror director, has put together a solid piece of craft. Unfortunately, that alone seems unlikely to prevent this not-quite-horror, not-quite-comedy, not-quite-adventure, not-quite-drama of a movie from being a huge flop.