Three years after wrapping on Vancouver locations, “Spooky House” finally is haunting a few theaters in regional release before — abracadabra! — it’s transformed into a homevid staple. Minor kidpic too often plays like a Saturday-morning TV sitcom for preteens, but boasts an impressively subdued performance by Ben Kingsley as a reclusive magician who’s forced out of semi-retirement.
Prologue establishes the Great Zamboni (Kingsley) as a flamboyant illusionist whose pretty wife and assistant (Carmen Moore) inexplicably disappears during a televised magic act. More than a decade later, Zamboni is a taciturn eccentric who resides in a small Pacific Northwest town and occasionally frightens the locals by walking around with a sleek black jaguar on a leash. The forebodingly gone-to-seed gothic mansion where he lives is aptly nicknamed — yes, you guessed it! — “the spooky house.”
A few plucky youngsters dare to enter Zamboni’s abode one evening while seeking a missing pet goat. Zamboni easily scares most of the intruders, but Max (Matt Weinberg), a recently orphaned youngster, is more fascinated than frightened. Indeed, despite Zamboni’s best efforts to remain gruffly unapproachable, Max makes repeated visits to the spooky house, hoping to learn more about magic from the master magician.
Climax is a series of scary-funny setups as Zamboni saves Max and the gang from a trio of larcenous juvenile delinquents employed by a self-styled grande dame known only as Boss (Mercedes Ruehl). The bad kids chase the good kids through the spooky house, only to be terrified by the magician’s trickery.
Ruehl’s broadly overstated mugging and posing is typical of the performances usually given by grownup actors — even very fine, Oscar-winning grownups — who want to look like good sports while appearing in kidpix.
But Kingsley understands — as Michael Caine understood in “The Muppet Christmas Carol” — that, even in kidpix, it’s more important to be a good actor than a good sport. His character offers carte blanche for all manner of scenery-chewing excess, but Kingsley is all the more effective for underplaying Zamboni’s onstage showmanship and offstage curmudgeonry.
Emotional payoff comes in unexpectedly affecting scene where Max reveals he’s orphanage-bound, and Zamboni confides that he, too, was raised in a state-run institution. It sounds corny as all get-out, but Kingsley and the well-cast Weinberg make it ring true.
Elsewhere, of course, it helps a lot that Kingsley looks effortlessly cool while sauntering around town in a black-on-black wardrobe with matching false mustache, Prince Valiant hairdo and pet jaguar.
Working from a script he co-wrote with wife Margaret, helmer William Sachs maintains the breakneck pace of a pic aimed squarely at moppets with short attention spans. Tech values are uneven — loud pop tunes occasionally sound sludgy in sound mix — but acceptable. Among supporting players, Katharine Isabelle is standout as sharp young vixen who leads two dim-bulb guys in the thievery ring.