Let’s give 2018 this much: It’s the year that we finally got to see Cate Blanchett head-butt a pumpkin. To be more specific, it’s a bloated jack-o’-lantern, one projectile-puking seeds and pulp, a beast that’s just one of the jolly, jolting delights unleashed in the raving last third of Eli Roth’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Roth’s film is a funhouse throwback, a scare-the-kids goof with a top-shelf cast, an antique shop’s worth of creepy windup dolls and more heart than you might expect — and, like those jack-o’-lanterns, it’s got more teeth, too.
Of course, in adapting John Bellairs’ beloved young adult mystery from 1973, set in a warlock’s Victorian mansion in 1955, Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke commit some of the usual sins of today’s kids movies. They lavish more attention than necessary on the digestive tract of the warlock’s topiary griffin, for example, and hustle everything along too quickly, even in the early reels. These scenes find the dictionary-obsessed, recently orphaned fourth-grader Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) sent off to live with his wild-eyed, irresponsible stage magician uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). Edward Gorey himself drew the home in illustrations in Bellairs’ book, and you might guess that as you savor Jon Hutman’s splendidly cobwebbed production design. The front parlor is all ticking clocks in Galápagan variety; display cases upstairs showcase dusty taxidermied bric-a-brac; a stained-glass window is forever changing the scene it depicts.
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Since the movie is in such a hurry, we’re not given much chance to soak in this strangeness, to explore it with Lewis and discover, with awe and apprehension, that the place courses with actual magic. Instead, that’s apparent from the get-go, as the house puts on a quick, noisy show. One curious early scene finds Uncle Jonathan trying to cheer up Lewis with an old real-world magic trick — he pulls an endless hanky from his fist and looks dismayed that this isn’t dazzling the kid. Some of the comedy and scares in the movie’s busy first third share the uncle’s sense of desperation, like the filmmakers hope that if they just keep yanking out familiar gags, viewers will be won over. (The overstuffing of the house with magic also screws up the plotting, later, when Lewis can’t prove to a friend from school that magic exists at all.)
Fortunately, The House With a Clock in Its Walls gets better. In several crisply comic scenes, Black is paired with Blanchett, who plays a neighboring witch in smashing violet skirt ensembles; the two rat-a-tat insults at each other like a vaudevillian comedy duo, their characters clearly amused at each other’s skills. The plot kicks in with a strong, spooky sequence involving Lewis being awoken, in the middle of the night, by Uncle Jonathan taking an ax to a wall inside the house. He’s convinced there is some kind of clock in there, and he has tried to drown out its tolling with all those other clocks. Compounding that creepiness is the lone rule that this most unorthodox of guardians lays down for his nephew: Never, ever open the house’s one locked door.
While we wait for the deliciously inevitable, Lewis gets sent to the local elementary school, where the dreamy weird kid faces the world’s disinterest in dreamy weird kids. This stretch of the film reveals a lightness and sensitivity that’s new for Roth, director of the Hostel films and the defiantly unnecessary recent Death Wish remake. They’re funny, too, even as they tread into A Christmas Story territory, complete with coonskin caps and Ovaltine. Touchingly, it’s Lewis’ desire to fit in with other kids that finally brings him to flout Jonathan’s warning. Soon, he’s lugging a junior Necronomicon off to a lavishly eerie graveyard. The result of the blood magic he performs there is a series of inventive, funny, just-frightening-enough horror-comedy set pieces that split the difference between Goosebumps and a good Tim Burton film. Once in a while, Roth’s Cabin Fever sadism sharpens the scares just enough to keep kids on edge. When all hell breaks loose, Vaccaro, like the child actors in a Steven Spielberg film, screams and panics as if he’s truly harrowed. Roth and Vaccaro also find the heart of scenes where Lewis faces the trauma of having lost his parents.
After Goosebumps and Jumanji, Black has claimed as his own the role of unhinged adult in slightly gross children’s movies. He is excellent, here, serving both as avuncular host — to Lewis and to viewers — and a source of goofball danger. I realized, while watching him chasten a CGI beastie for its reckless farting, that I don’t miss the wilder Black of School of Rock or Tenacious D nearly as much as I appreciate the thought of kids being treated to so skilled and eager a performer. Blanchett is spry, loose-limbed and immensely likable, and the grand pleasure of watching her smash her skull into that pumpkin is matched, almost, by the vision of Black and Kyle MacLachlan performing vintage magic — viewed through a kinescope. If putting up with a gassy griffin is the price we have to pay to see that, I guess it’s worth it.