A young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) aids his magical uncle (Jack Black) and his friend (Cate Blanchett) in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world.
Eli Roth is a name primarily associated with gory horrors such as 'Hostel', 'The Green Inferno' and inferior thrillers such as 'Knock Knock' and the ill-fated 'Death Wish' remake. Despite this, he was chosen for 'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' - a kid-lit favourite about a lonely orphan who's taken in by a good-hearted duo of witches to help find a doomsday clock - by none other than Steven Spielberg for his Amblin banner. Given how Roth is a horror aficianado and his most recognised and celebrated work is in that genre, you'd wonder how it was he came to be chosen for something like this.
Right from the outset, Roth's credentials work to his advantage and the movie has all the airs and feeling of a late '90s children's horror movie like 'Hocus Pocus' or 'Halloweentown'. There's a few moments where it gets particularly scary, but it's never gratuitous or violent in a way that Roth's previous work would suggest. Instead, it has a rollercoaster ride sense of itself, hurtling the audience through jump-out frights and creepy-looking dolls than anything else.
It's effective, and Roth now has to temper all of this with warmth and humour as needed. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are the vehicles of this, bouncing off one another easily and ably and handling clunky exposition and some plodding emotional beats with ease. Owen Vaccaro, who's the 'weird' orphan that brings the audience into this world, plays up the scares a little too much and maybe oversells it somewhat, but it's a minor complaint and really, the movie is scary enough that his reactions do seem warranted. Kyle MacLachlan shows up as the villain only towards the end, but seems to enjoy his raucous character in a way that's similar to the more weirder and violent moments of the recent 'Twin Peaks: The Return'.
Again, Eli Roth truly was a left-of-field choice for something like this and the gamble clearly paid off. Eric Kripke's script compliments the source novel and John Bellairs' gothic tones, and given how Kripke was the creator of 'Supernatural', it only makes sense that he be the one to adapt it. For all of the positives with 'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' however, the pacing feels laboured at points and the CGI-heavy ending feels flat and somewhat dull. Likewise, a subplot involving the orphan's school life, feels extraneous and further drags down the stop-start pacing of the story.
Still, 'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' has enough magic to spare and while it may be a bit splashy in places, its gooey heart is in the right place.