Mario’s Movies: “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”

By Mario Ricciardi

Since Harry Potter, the debate over whether or not sorcery and witchcraft has a place in children’s genres has taken its place at the forefront of discussions. A conversation whose commonplace has withered since the grown popularity of the orphan Potter, the new movie “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” invites a new opportunity.

“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” will hardly reach the level of cultural fame as Harry Potter. Originally a 1970s book series written by John Bellairs with illustrations by the legendary Edward Gorey, “The House with a Clock in its Walls” was one of the first successful young adult books to mix kids with the occult. That graying of the line between ghosts, demons, sorcery and what’s responsible in children’s entertainment is exactly why the film deserves a bigger conversation than it will get.

Ultimately, the movie adaptation’s key flaw is that it proves not clever enough for adults and far too scary for a children. The storyline has heart and is an enjoyable piece of Halloween fun, but it lacks the dual cleverness of a Pixar film. All the while it mixes in demented imagery, blood magic, necromancy and the animated decaying corpse of Kyle MacLachlan.

Eli Roth, director of the grindhouse Hostel movies and the cannibal flick “Green Inferno,” brings a deceivingly innocent sense of beauty and imagination to the screen here — from the spooky Americana architecture, to the 1950s costume design, to the characters themselves. When Roth isn’t looking for ways to create nightmares, he carves a fairly dreamy atmosphere out of the material.

“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” tries its hardest, most noticeably in the performances given. Owen Vaccaro stars as the indomitable Lewis Barnavelt. He turns in a near-perfect performance of a kid dealing with deep emotional hurt while growing up in a fantastical environment. He holds up next to co-stars Cate Blanchett and Jack Black. Black turns in his classic getting-his-life-together-for-the-sake-of-a-child routine while I asked myself multiple times why Cate Blanchett agreed to the film.

That said, Blanchett was the true highlight of the film. Giving a performance just as powerful and necessary as any award season film would call for, she truly reminds us that a truly great actor gives greatness in everything they do.

Overall, “The House with a Clock in its Walls” is a coming-of-age tale wrapped in a sometimes dreamy and sometimes nightmarish Halloween movie marketed to kids. Regardless of target demographics, Roth reinforces exactly why there are people out there weary of mixing protagonism with sorcery. He hits just on the wrong side of darkness then tries to overlook it with whimsicality. Said moments are brief, but they are in fact there and unavoidable for the audience.

In attempting to mix adult elements into a kids movie, Roth should have taken more inspiration from other kids movies than horror movies.

??? (3/5 Penguins)