Almost-filmed for years, the cinematic version of John Bellairs’ 1973 novel (penned before the term Young Adult was popularised) features charmingly broad performances and lots of fanciful FX, which makes up for the weird tone.
However, the most remarkable thing here is that the director is Eli Roth, whose previous work has encompassed torture epics (two Hostels), cannibal horrors (The Green Inferno) and violent remakes (Knock Knock, Death Wish). Steven Spielberg (through his Amblin Entertainment) thought the director was up to the task of handling a pic for older kids, and Roth resists the urge for gory mayhem.
In 1955, young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to New Zebedee, Michigan, after the off-screen deaths of his parents. There he meets his kimono-wearing, jazz-loving, cookie-scoffing Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and is taken to his only-in-the-movies Gothic mansion. The place is filled with clocks, and from one emerges Jonathan’s neighbour Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). While both insist there’s nothing strange going on, there obviously is, as Lewis is disturbed by odd noises at night and a seemingly alive armchair (a nice CG creation that recalls an episode of that ‘70s TV classic The Goodies).
Naturally, it transpires that Jonathan is a warlock, and after a period of learning the ways of magic and hearing about his Uncle’s late former friend Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan in a cool stroke of casting), Lewis must help when Isaac returns from the grave.
Vaccaro is almost overshadowed here by Black (as exuberant as ever) and Blanchett (having fun) but he’s amiable enough. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot director Roth himself hamming it up in a B+W bit from Lewis’ favourite show Captain Midnight.
Who knows what Roth might do next now that he’s shown he can deliver the family-friendly goods? An animated Disney pic? A Pixar outing? A sweet comedy about a cute dog? What dark magic is this?
Rated PG. The House with a Clock in its Walls is in cinemas now.