The notion of Eli Roth making a children's movie feels absolutely jarring. Known for works such as the Hostel franchise, Cabin Fever, and whatever the hell that Death Wish remake was, Roth has consistently cut his teeth on low budgets and the limits of good taste, so the idea of this filmmaker in particular taking a stab at a blockbuster aimed at the ten-year-old crowd is hard to wrap one's head around. Do you want to know what the even weirder thing is, though? Roth pulled it off! Despite Roth's previous resistance to making mainstream fare, The House With A Clock In Its Walls demonstrates that maybe making big budget horror for kids is an all too suitable use of his talents, because the film itself is an excellent example of how to treat children with the emotional maturity to handle scary situations without pandering to the idea that they aren't able to grasp intense stakes.
The year is 1955. Following the death of his parents, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) goes to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan in a creepy old house that local kids believe to be haunted. However, Lewis starts to suspect that not everything about his uncle is as it seems. And of course it isn't, as it is revealed that Jonathan and his neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) are a warlock and witch, respectively, studying the magically sentient house because an old associate of theirs left a ticking clock within its walls for some unknown magical purpose. As Jonathan and Florence continue to investigate the clock, Lewis resolves to learn how to use magic under his uncle's tutelage, but the pressures of being friendless in a new school threaten to jeopardize Lewis' newfound family and the entire world along with them.
For the adults in the audience, The House With A Clock In Its Walls isn't likely to provide much in the way of surprises, since Roth's film is largely reminiscent of the outsider self-acceptance narratives that dominated kids' pop culture in the '80s and '90s. However, for a new generation, particularly one for which John Bellairs' source novel has drifted into obscurity, this film has a lot to offer in terms of wholesome positivity. But that doesn't come into conflict with the film's desire to freak you out a little bit; on the contrary, it makes Lewis' journey feel treacherous and meaningful. From autonomous puppets to vicious vomiting pumpkins to disturbingly surreal age manipulation magic, Roth wields his spooky setpieces without fear that he's crossing any sort of lines with the parents in attendance, while still keeping the scares just cartoony enough to stay age appropriate. The film does lean a bit too heavily on scatological humor to defuse tension, but for the most part it places faith in its underage audience to enjoy being scared, making for a refreshing throwback to a time when scary children's media was more ubiquitous.
And this all works thanks to a fantastic cast that sells the hell out of the eerie atmosphere and otherworldly spellcraft. Black and Blanchett are absolute scene-stealers when together, trading acerbic barbs back and forth that betray a deep affection their characters feel for one another. They are the film's comedic lynchpins, so when they get serious as situations escalate, it hits hard, or at least it will for kids unaccustomed to that particular dramatic trick. Vaccaro, on the other hand, is a suitably relatable child lead, vacillating between curiosity and terror with ease, even if he doesn't necessarily sell moments of grief or sadness very convincingly. The only real waste comes in the form of Kyle MacLachlan as the main antagonist, who is reasonably intimidating but is so bogged down by prosthetics that keep him from bringing that particular MacLachlan brand of overacting which is the whole reason anyone hires him.
There are a few moments of plot contrivance that bend the limits of logic for the sake of character growth, but considering that this is a movie about dueling magic users, these excesses are forgivable if not negligible. Regardless, Eli Roth might have found a new wheelhouse with The House With A Clock In Its Walls. His goopy horror sensibilities translate well to an all-ages haunted house atmosphere, and I for one would welcome a new age of scary stories for younguns with Bellairs adaptations pushing the charge.