Childhood may be an innocent time, but it's also a scary one, as classic kid-lit authors such as Roald Dahl and John Bellairs knew well. This new adaptation of Bellairs' The House With a Clock in Its Walls (1973), the opener to a 12-book gothic series set in the midcentury Midwest, was directed by Eli Roth (Hostel and other hard-core horror flicks) and scripted by Eric Kripke, creator of the tongue-in-cheek horror fantasy "Supernatural."
It's an unusual recipe for a PG-rated kids' flick, but it works. While unlikely to terrify any adult fright fans, House combines whimsy and shudders into a pleasantly retro little package. Despite the requisite CG magic, it has an ambling pace and tall-tale Americana feel that recall 1980s gothics like Tim Burton's early work and the adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Loss and postwar trauma form the background of the story, set in 1955. Recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a kimono-wearing bachelor warlock who's about as boho as it gets in small-town Michigan. Jonathan occupies a Victorian straight out of Edward Gorey (who illustrated Bellair's book) and spends his time sparring platonically with his neighbor, the polished, purple-loving witch Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).
Just listening to this pair trade zingers is a pleasure: Black dials back his manic persona to an amiable eccentric level, while Blanchett plays a supercilious Mary Poppins type — even wielding an umbrella — with devilish wit. Naturally, there's a high-stakes plot, too: The house has not just a clock but a literal doomsday clock ticking in its walls, planted there by a mad magician (Kyle MacLachlan), and Lewis and his new friends must locate it before it chimes the final hour.
While that setup ensures the expected whiz-bang climax, the script's strength is that it dwells less on magical shenanigans than on the everyday stuff shaping Lewis' childhood: bullies, new friendships, missing his mom. Kripke's script is heavy on one-liners that have vaudeville pungency rather than modern glibness; downright anachronisms are mercifully few. Vaccaro makes the nerdy, dictionary-quoting kid a likable hero with believable flaws, though he doesn't always sell his more emotional scenes.
Jonathan has a couple of comical supernatural pets — one of whom occasions a tad too many poop jokes — but Jon Hutman's old-fashioned production design is the real nonhuman star here. Reminiscent of Hill House in the 1963 version of The Haunting, the mansion is stuffed to the gills with whimsical woodwork and steampunk props (telescopes, automata); warm, saturated colors make it breathe. Marlene Stewart's costumes are equally creative, and Roth gives visual life to potentially dull exposition flashbacks by presenting them in Kinetoscope or newsreel formats.
Overall, House steeps itself in imagery of a bygone era — culturally distant even in 1973 — without overplaying the nostalgia factor. By today's standards, Lewis' independence is pretty extreme, and his world doesn't feel safe or sanitized; when he yields to the sway of dark magic, he pays the price.
While it's no classic, The House With a Clock in Its Walls is less of a whirling Rube Goldberg contraption and more human scale than most of today's live-action kid fantasies. Parents with a fondness for Halloween iconography should appreciate its moderately spooky charms, while kids get low-key lessons in necromancy, resisting peer pressure and embracing their inner oddball. Those last two could actually come in handy.