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The House With a Clock in Its Walls Movie Review

It's About Time

Crafting a kid-friendly horror flick is no easy task.  As a filmmaker, you want to make something spooky enough to haunt the imagination, but not terrifying enough to, you know, traumatize a child for life. It's a delicate balancing act to be sure, and that's not exactly something director Eli Roth is known for. In fact, as the man behind the graphic "Hostel" franchise and other similarly violent offerings, Roth is just about the last person I'd think of to helm a family film -- even one steeped in the macabre. But with "The House with a Clock in Its Walls," the director offers a surprisingly effective helping of spine-tingling fun for all ages. In fact, this might actually be his best film so far. That's right: it turns out that Eli Roth should have probably just been making kid's films all along.

Based on the novel of the same name, the film focuses on Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), an orphaned 10-year-old boy who goes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in 1955. Though at first uneasy in his uncle's strange, gothic home, Lewis gradually warms up to his odd caretaker and soon discovers that Jonathan is actually a warlock. Taken under his uncle's wing, Lewis begins to learn how to practice magic himself. But when he attempts to impress a classmate with his burgeoning powers, Lewis accidently pulls off a dangerous spell that could have apocalyptic consequences. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the young boy must summon the courage necessary to save the day.

From the moment the retro 1970s Universal logo hits the screen, it's clear that Roth is aiming to evoke a certain classic Spielberg vibe here -- and, for the most part, he actually pulls it off pretty well. There's an inherent sense of wish-fulfillment and wonder that comes with watching a kid learn how to become a warlock, and the movie finds some solid laughs, scares, and thrills as Lewis goes through the ups and downs of spellcasting. Of course, there are certain echoes of the "Harry Potter" franchise evident throughout, but the source material here actually pre-dates J. K. Rowling's series by nearly 25 years.

With that said, Roth's overall tone skews a bit younger than that other famous boy-wizard tale, offering an experience that is a little less engaging for adults, with a decidedly juvenile sense of humor and fairly thin plot. That's not to say that parents will be bored by the movie though. On the contrary, the third act features a notable spark in style and action, resulting in some kinetic and genuinely harrowing set-pieces as Lewis and his companions take on the film's big baddies. Creepy automatons, evil pumpkins, killer books, and undead wizards all present hair-raising obstacles, and one particularly eerie flashback scene is home to some genuinely unsettling imagery -- skirting the line just right between nightmare-eliciting and therapy-inducing.

Throughout all off the chaos, Owen Vaccaro does a nice job in the lead role, fully selling Lewis' gradual transformation from meek boy to powerful hero. Bookish and a bit odd, Lewis initially has a hard time fitting in, but through his journey he comes to embrace his own uniqueness. To that point, the film becomes a loving celebration of outcasts and weirdos, offering kids a positive message about being themselves. Jack Black furthers this theme through an amusing performance as the laid-back Uncle Johnathan, and Cate Blanchet steals the show as the badass witch next door, Florence Zimmerman. Together, Black and Blanchet share playful chemistry, trading sharp barbs back and forth while always making it clear just how much both really care for each other.

Filled with ticking clocks, living furniture, and other enchanted flourishes, Johnathan's magical home also becomes a character unto itself, oscillating between wondrous and ominous as the narrative evolves. But while Roth and his team do a nice job with the gothic production design and visuals, there are times when the house feels a little generic, lacking some of the imagination found in other supernatural locations in similar family films. Sure, there's a chair that acts like a dog and a giant topiary lion with wings that strolls about the garden, but considering its title billing, the house just isn't as unique and memorable as it should be. Really, the same could be said about the movie as a whole. While I actually admire the more self-contained and limited scope here, considering the otherworldly subject matter, the story and dialogue just feel a bit dull at times. Likewise, there are some occasional tonal issues and one or two decidedly politically incorrect jokes that might rub some more sensitive viewers the wrong way.

But despite some sporadic shortcomings, "The House with a Clock in Its Walls" mostly succeeds, finding that rare balance necessary to pull-off a family-friendly horror film. Though its appeal for adults and overall creativity aren't as strong as some other supernatural kids' flicks, director Eli Roth does offer an appropriately amusing mixture of creepy scares, silly comedy, and wondrous magic -- proving that even the sick mind behind "The Green Inferno" has a surprisingly softer, gentler side buried in there somewhere.


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