Review: Timid scares in 'House With a Clock in its Walls'

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are a good pair but the kiddie horror-comedy sputters out

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro and Jack Black in "The House With a Clock in its Walls."

Things go bump in the night for awhile, then they go thud, in "The House With a Clock in its Walls," a so-so kiddie horror-comedy that can't deliver on its early promise.  

Owen Vaccaro (the "Daddy's Home" movies) makes a strong impression as young Lewis Barnavelt, who is sent to live with his wacky uncle in the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan, after his parents die in a car crash. 

Jack Black is all arched eyebrows and over-enunciated line delivery as Lewis' uncle Jonathan, a warlock (described by Lewis as a "boy witch") who lives in an old house filled with dozens of ticking clocks, stuffed chairs that bark like dogs and stained glass windows that animate themselves. The house is not so much haunted as it's filled with magic. 

Jonathan's neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett), a friendly witch, secretly assists Jonathan in looking for a clock within the house that controls time itself. Both teach Lewis a few tricks of the trade.

But when Lewis accidentally raises Jonathan's former partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) from the dead, the very nature of life on Earth is threatened.

Worse yet, the movie is robbed of its lively spark. 

"The House With a Clock in its Walls" -- based on late Michigan author John Bellairs' 1973 novel -- marks director Eli Roth's first foray into family filmmaking, an abrupt switch from the torture porn ("Hostel" and its sequel) and cannibalistic fare ("The Green Inferno") of his past. 

"House" has decent scares for a kid's flick, and an adventurous spirit reminiscent of "Monster House" or a chapter in the "Goosebumps" franchise. 

But it runs out of steam at about the midway point and falls victim to clumsy, overcooked plotting. It's fun for a while, until it becomes more trick than treat.


'The House With a Clock in its Walls'


Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language

Running time: 105 minutes