“Movie magic.” That expression used to mean something quite different back when filmmakers relied on practical effects to make the impossible seem possible, and not every YA protagonist had dormant supernatural powers just waiting to be discovered. Yet another in a pipeline of vaguely Harry Potter-esque wish-fulfillment fantasies, Universal’s clunky but not entirely un-charming “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” makes enchantment so easy — and so ubiquitous — as to feel almost ordinary, being the all-too-familiar story of an orphan who picks up some nifty tricks when he goes to live in a house that ticks.
Looking back, Amblin Entertainment — that Steven Spielberg-hatched shingle responsible for such films as “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” — may as well have defined the concept of movie magic for a generation, only to see it watered down by all the computer-generated juvenile thrill rides that followed. The Amblin-produced “House” may as well have been conceived as a throwback to what the label once represented: Like 1985’s darkly hallucinogenic “Young Sherlock Holmes” (whose trippy CG stained-glass sequence was a visual-effects breakthrough for its time), what presents itself as an ominous mystery is in fact a horror movie for kids.
That explains why “House” — adapted by Eric Kripke from John Bellairs’ 1973 kid-lit classic — boasts as its director Eli Roth, the hard-R gorehound responsible for “Cabin Fever” and the “Hostel” movies. One might consider him too extreme for the assignment, yet Roth adapts his skills quite nicely to this project’s PG rating, delivering minor jolts where appropriate, and leaning on “Goosebumps” star Jack Black to leaven things with comedy throughout. If the idea was to give 8- to 12-year-olds a bit of a fright, maybe even to inspire a few mild nightmares, without doing any permanent damage, Roth is certainly up to the task.
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His “House” is big on atmosphere, full of doors with big brass locks and oversize rooms that intimidate 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, both miscast and badly directed as someone Bellairs described as chubby and awkward), who has been sent to New Zebedee, Mich., after his parents’ death to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black, who earns laughs with the arch of an eyebrow or the peculiar enunciation of a word taken at random). Lewis’ new guardian is a kimono-wearing kook — and self-described warlock — who conducts himself like some kind of corny late-19th-century magician, complete with greased-back hair and penciled-on beauty mark.
Gesturing grandly and delivering each line as if onstage, Jonathan introduces Lewis to the relatively elegant Mrs. Zimmerman, a lilac-clad sorceress (such costumes!) with a serpent’s tongue — the sort of role Tim Burton might have cast with his muse du moment (Lisa Marie or Eva Green or Helena Bonham Carter), and that Roth awards to Cate Blanchett, who relishes such a colorful opportunity without veering nearly so far into camp. Though Jonathan describes her as a “neighbor,” Mrs. Zimmerman appears to share the house — not that the particulars matter so much: The duo maintain an affectionately combative routine by which they trade insults, making for virtually the only amusing repartee in a film whose script otherwise seems to be working overtime to establish the not-especially-interesting mystery of its eponymous clock.
It all hinges on an elaborate backstory involving the mansion’s previous residents, an evil wizard named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who both died/disappeared years earlier while trying to create a mechanism that could somehow wreak havoc on the forces of time. That couple may be long gone, but the treacherous timepiece remains, counting down somewhere inside the house, and though Jonathan has tried to cover its ticking with dozens of other clocks, late at night Lewis can hear the unmistakable sound of doomsday approaching. In the indeterminate interim, he’s delighted to discover that sorcery doesn’t require any special talent, just a willingness to study — yielding cute spell-casting montages that have little to do with where the plot’s ultimately headed.
If things are weird at home, they’re not exactly copacetic at school, where Lewis (who wears a pair of vintage pilot’s goggles to P.E.) is the last person picked for basketball — even after the kid with crutches. Lewis tries to make friends with Tarby (Sunny Suljic, star of Jonah Hill’s upcoming “Mid90s”), the most popular kid in class, but that only leads to trouble. Big trouble, as Lewis goes so far out of his way to impress Tarby that he winds up breaking the one rule Jonathan set, stealing a forbidden book and using it to wake Izard’s corpse (which makes zero sense, when the film goes so far out of its way to establish how much he misses his parents — and who would be the more logical focus of such an incantation). At any rate, by resurrecting this Voldemort Lite, Lewis triggers the obligatory showdown in the house’s basement on the eve of an eclipse — all of which feels formulaic in the extreme and more than a little derivative of better Tim Burton movies, most notably “Beetlejuice.”
While not terribly original, it would be fair to call the movie inventive, like one of those eccentrics who’s constantly pestering the patent office with what he thinks are fresh ideas, only to discover that someone else got there first. Together with production designer John Hutman and “Beauty and the Beast” VFX supervisor Louis Morin, Roth has brought to life a creepy mansion with surprises around every corner, many of which linger in the imagination long after the film has ended — from an anthropomorphic armchair that follows Lewis around like some kind of lonely old pet to the flatulent topiary griffin that keeps guard over the garden. Add to that the cadre of menacing jack-o’-lanterns out front and a room full of sinister-looking automatons that spring to life late in the film, and you’ve got plenty of supernatural supporting players to generate a few decent set-pieces. Whether today’s kids look back as fondly on “House” as their parents do on previous Amblin productions, only time will tell.