John Bellairs’ 1973 novel “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” was the first of the author’s six YA books to be illustrated by the late Edward Gorey, whose pen-and-ink drawings were sinister and delightful in equal measure; they invited children to embrace the darkness of growing up without surrendering the sense of wonder that kept them young. Universal’s soulless 2018 film adaptation of the same name, on the other hand, is directed by “Hostel” auteur Eli Roth, whose cartoonish approach makes this bittersweet saga of witchcraft and wizardry feel like nothing more than a well-furnished theme park attraction. Still, it’s sure to be a veritable nightmare factory for kids of a certain age, and there can only be so much shade to throw at a movie in which Cate Blanchett head-butts a demonically possessed pumpkin in order to help save the world from Kyle MacLachlan’s rotting corpse.
Harkening back to the relatively macabre kids movies we used to get in the days before “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” (Roth channels everything from “Casper” to “The Watcher in the Woods”), “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” lacks the visual imagination required to do the book justice, though it almost has enough heart to capture the spirit of the story behind it. The action is set in the fictional ‘burb of New Zebedee, Michigan, circa 1955. It’s all glittering marquees, Ovaltine shakes, and other Amblin-esque symbols of Americana as far as the eye can see, but the newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (pre-teen actor Owen Vaccaro, looking like an aged-up Jacob Tremblay and spotting a pair of aviator goggles that give off a worrying “The Book of Henry” vibe) is about to move into the dark side of town, which hides all manner of magical secrets.
It turns out that Jonathan Barnavelt, Lewis’ estranged uncle and new guardian, is a bit of a weirdo; of course, in stories like this, that’s always the best thing you can be. He’s also a warlock. Played by a spirited and charismatic Jack Black (who mined similar terrain in the recent “Goosebumps” adaptation), Jonathan lives in a musty old Victorian house where all of the objects seem to be possessed, and every moribund detail has been art-directed within an inch of its life. The whole place has the feel of a display that you’d get in trouble for touching — it’s evocative, but you don’t get the sense that anyone could actually live there. Especially not with the infernal ticking noise that comes from somewhere in the walls each night. That thunderous drone would be a total nuisance even if it wasn’t the work of an evil, apocalyptic wizard who used to own the place before he died.
It’s easier to believe in all of the magic stuff, even though the movie resists any sort of unifying internal logic for how its sorcery works. It doesn’t matter who makes the glass-stained windows move, or how the playing cards change denominations in your hand, or why the chewed-up loveseat whimpers like a puppy; these things just happen, though all of them would be much easier to accept if any of them were endowed with any real creative purpose. Or maybe not: Roth’s most well-realized supernatural creature is a topiary chimera who has a nasty habit of unleashing a projectile torrent of shit whenever a scene runs too long (one does not get the sense that either Roth or screenwriter Eric Kripke have thought through whatever a flying lion made out of grass likes to eat).
Lucky for Lewis, his uncle’s house has its charms, the most delightful of which is Jonathan’s neighbor and lovingly platonic nemesis, Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett, draped in purple, and striking her usual balance of warmth and severity as a sympathetic aunt type who’s dealing with a profound loss of her own). A good witch in both talent and morality, Florence almost exudes enough personality to compensate for the fact that Lewis is a wet blanket who spends most of the movie reacting to chintzy special effects.
Indeed, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is at its best when it foregrounds the adults and gives Black and Blanchett ample time to bicker with one another. The writing doesn’t do these actors any favors (“I’m relieved to see you didn’t inherit your uncle’s freakishly oversized head” is an average zinger), but it’s easy to believe them as two lonely people who have improvised a life of some kind together, and a better film would have afforded them more opportunity to flesh that out. As Florence tells Lewis: “All one really needs in this world is one good friend.”
Lewis has much better luck finding enemies, as the film devotes a necessary but moribund subplot to the boy’s fraught relationship with a pint-sized greaser (played by “Mid90s” star Sunny Suljic). By all reason, these scenes should help to deepen the young hero’s sadness, and clarify the story’s focus on the understandably selfish ways that people deal with death, but they tend to be as self-serving as the soft jump-scares that Roth plants throughout the more effects-driven sequences (there are a few nice jolts here, but the sound isn’t jacked up to the sadistic level of “The Nun” and its ilk). The real scares don’t begin until the villains barge in.
This fast-paced, hyper-functional kind of storytelling doesn’t allow for the depth of feeling it needs in order to work — it doesn’t stress Lewis’ desperation to find a reason to keep on living after his parents’ demise, or how that’s reflected in the warped sense of grief that turns the villain against the world. Instead, we’re left with some very creepy dolls, Blanchett’s ability to serve up unknowable wonder just by flaring her eyes, and the desperate hope that these witches and warlock might be able to conjure up a better sequel.
Universal will release “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” in theaters on September 21.