In the magical adventure "The House with the Clock in Its Walls," the titular dwelling is the most alive and compelling character in the movie. Just the sight of the spooky Queen Anne-style home — with its wrought-iron gate, secret passages, animated furnishings, stained-glass windows, dusty bookshelves and hundreds of assorted clocks and creepy curiosities — sends shivers. A ticking timepiece — as per the title — is also hidden inside its walls. It must be found or the world will be wiped out. "This is no place for kids," warns Jack Black's character moments into the film.
The humans who reside at 100 High St., however, do not measure up to the allure of what the locals have dubbed the "Slaughter House." The film opens in 1955 in New Zebedee, Michigan, where a fresh-off-the bus Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro from the "Daddy's Home" movies), a recently orphaned 10-year-old, comes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black), a warlock. In no stretch whatsoever, the part calls for Black to be in full-on man-child mode as he tells his new charge there's no bedtime or no bath time, but just don't open that foreboding armoire, ever.
Uncle Jonathan trades barbs ("hag face!") with Cate Blanchett's ("go braid your back hair!") Florence Zimmerman, the "good witch" next door with a penchant for purple. Together, they form an unconventional family, something they all crave, even if they don't know it ... yet. And, if ever any kid needed to feel loved it is Lewis, still grieving his parents and struggling to fit in at school. Later, the script calls on him to save the universe. No sweat.
Director and Newton native Eli Roth ("Cabin Fever," and the "Hostel" movies), working from a script by TV writer Eric Kripke, trades his signature torture-porn for kiddie frights in his adaptation of the 1973 novel by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, famous for his morbid depictions of domestic life. The result is a mixed bag of tricks, hexes and spells. Roth creates vivid visuals that shock and scare and in some scenes, delight. But those tonal shifts from playful banter to outright action to fantastical whimsy to middle-school angst and back don't always coalesce. Though, I'm not sure if the target audience will even notice.
Be warned, this isn't a movie for small children, and Roth is on a mission to scare your kids as much as the PG rating allows. It's dark, but it's nothing middle-age kids can't handle (think: "E.T.," "Harry Potter," "Gremlins," "Goonies"). The frights are both funny and eerie, not in a gross-out bloody way, but rather creepy clowns, killer pumpkins, self-playing pianos, mannequin faces, graveyard shenanigans, and shape-shifting characters. But for all the effort Roth expends stylistically, he fails to create palpable suspense. That's the main reason the movie falters. There's never any doubt, too, about how the story is going to play out and who's going to be the hero. In fact, it is broadcast almost from the start, when one character advises: "To become a warlock you have to defeat an evil spirit using your own magic."
The central "where's the hidden clock?" mystery is introduced then practically forgotten. When it re-enters the narrative, it feels jammed in. After the climatic "falling out" (another clichéd plot point you see coming) Roth lays down the gauntlet for a third act that picks up steam by becoming a literal race against time.