No, this isn’t Goosebumps 2. Yes, it stars Jack Black. Yes, it’s a kids movie. Yes, it’s a lighthearted tale of mysticism and monsters coming to life and with almost deliberately shoddy CGI that evokes fondness for 90’s Nickelodeon-esque horror. But no, it isn’t Goosebumps 2. But I can understand why it would almost want people to think that. The first Goosebumps was a pleasant surprise, and made a respectable amount of money to get an actual sequel of its own. But before that, three weeks beforehand A House with a Clock in Its Walls is going to intercept that audience and scratch whatever Goosebumps-sized itch people have built up over the last three years. Not only that, but it’s looking to raise the stakes by not only stealing Black from the cast, but by adding heavyweight actor Cate Blanchett and genre director Eli Roth to liven up the proceedings. And speaking of Roth, this is certainly something otherwise outside his jurisdiction, being best known for splatterpunk titles such as Cabin Fever and Hostel. Not that people can’t change career trajectories, but it does come as something of a left turn considering he’d released the Death Wish remake just six months prior. And even with all these heavy hitters, The House with a Clock in Its Walls can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. It’s by no means bad, but it never really capitalizes on its advantages and goes outside the realm of expectation. There’s of course plenty for kids to enjoy, adults too, but it feels little more than perfunctory and, well, clockwork.
Set in 1955, The House with a Clock in Its Walls centers on ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who, following the death of his parents, is sent to live in a mansion with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). There, he also meets Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), Jonathan’s friend and neighbor. As he adjusts to his new household and school, Lewis is stunned to learn that Jonathan and Florence are a warlock and a witch, respectively, who upon his request, acquiesce to teaching him the mystical arts. However, as Lewis’s powers grow stronger, a dark entity ticks away somewhere in house; a cursed clock, placed there by Jonathan’s old partner in magic Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who though deceased surely has some evil machinations in place ready to spring forth and wreak havoc. Together they must pull their resources and find the clock before its gongs get down to zero, else all hell break loose.
So, yeah, aside from all the spooky elements, this is about as far from your typical Eli Roth vehicle as it was for Martin Scorsese to direct Hugo. And while Roth’s films are typically subpar, he is a versatile enough director to make them at least interesting. While it’s not news that his resurrection of Death Wish was one of the year’s worst offerings – thanks to its tasteless gun-ho attitude and lack of thematic tact – I’d argue Roth was the one good thing about it, it being evident that he was still trying to make a pulse-pounding thrill ride. Even with something like The Green Inferno, perhaps the most bloodily disgusting movie I have ever seen. Even there, where the story is lackluster and virtually nonexistent, he’s able to elevate it at least to the level of entertaining. And that’s usually the case with his films, poorly written but well directed. Except here, partially, that is, as Roth isn’t quite able to do anything more than a standard patch job that the studio could have easily gotten from the likes of Brett Ratner were they in need of someone bland but manageable in the director’s chair. In fact, I’d be surprised he even did the job had his name not come up in the opening credits, seeing as how tame this one is. And that’s a damn shame, because though he’s used to the story being paint-by-numbers – even though this one is based on a bestselling book – he could have been the key ingredient to take this one over the top. But instead we’re treated to an ordinary children’s fantasy film with too often a penchant for potty humor to be anything in the way of memorable.
But let’s get into why this is still far from being bad. Namely, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. I never thought I’d say it, but man, do they have strong comedic chemistry. Seriously, their back-and-forth jabs at one another make this almost worthy of the price of a ticket. They say if you’re making a kids movie, you gotta at least include something for the parents, because in theory, you’re profiting twofold with the kid and parent combo. Now, normally that’d include some subtle adult humor here and there that’d ordinarily go right over a child’s head. One need only watch The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie to catch my meaning; that thing is wall-to-wall adult humor. But The House with a Clock in Its Walls takes a different approach, namely by pairing two seasoned, dependable actors to basically play comedic ping-pong to distract from the fact that not a whole lot is going on. While I don’t care for the storytelling, whoever wrote their dialogue did a bang-up job, because the only thing I’d look forward to in a hypothetical sequel is seeing their reunion.
They say trends take about two decades – twenty years, for the layman – to resurface in popularity. Usually, people think of fashion when bringing this up, but the same is usually true for movies. Remakes in particular follow this trend, with a gap of twenty years or so evolution in filmmaking technology being reasonable justification for giving something a modernized update. And though where exactly you draw the line between giving someone the green light to do so or the red light is arbitrary, I can’t help but scowl whenever I see a studio clip that timeframe by a year or so just to cash in. Hell, it happened to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever when someone farted out their own Cabin Fever just fourteen years later. Same movie, essentially, but way worse. Anyway, the point here being is that people often get nostalgic for certain vibes and motifs in their movies and TV. That’s why we’re seeing such a surge in 80s nostalgia in things like Stranger Things and Super 8. And while that same 80s nostalgia did arrive a little late, 90s nostalgia arrived right on time. Case in point, another Netflix original by the name of Everything Sucks!. But a trend has begun whereby these kid-oriented fantasy or horror films take on that same kind of vibe, almost as if all they’re trying to be are higher-budgeted Nickelodeon TV movies or Disney Channel Original Movies. That way, not only do you draw in the youth audience of today, but also those twenty-something-year-olds like me who grew up on stuff like Halloweentown and Are You Afraid of the Dark?. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re already making plans to bring the latter of the two to the big screen to rake up those sweet, sweet nostalgia bucks. Anyway, long story short, The House with a Clock in Its Walls does just that, eschewing more contemporary fantasy sensibilities – which is basically killing the genre, post Harry Potter, anyway – and using that 90s vibe to power this old beast. And while it doesn’t quite measure up structurally to those it’s emulating, it is nevertheless a welcome tone to employ, giving it an identity, which is more than most of its kind can say.
So at the end of the day, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is built with too many solid parts to be outright bad, but still never really lives up to its full potential. Sometimes you like the lyrics so much that you just want a movie to sing, but unfortunately this one never does. While I’m not wishing to get that hour and forty-five minutes of my life back, I still wish they were perhaps better well spent on a movie that was actually jazzed to be the movie that it is.
Final Score: 5/10