Eli Roth has always been a better horror fan and film lover than actual filmmaker, and he’s proven it time and time again. After the embarrassing bomb that was “Death Wish,” I had hope that “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” would be a win and Roth would kind of re-invent himself. While not as awful as “Death Wish,” Roth proves once again he’s not too good at handling tone, pacing, and general direction. Without the thick icing of blood, grue, and torture to cover up the thinly layered cake that is “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” Roth once again proves he’s a filmmaker that has so much to learn, and so much evolving to do.
In 1955 Michigan, ten year old Lewis has lost his parents in a car accident. Sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan, Lewis tries to make himself comfortable in his gothic home. Filled with all kinds of rooms and creepiness, Lewis finds it hard to adapt. It doesn‘t help that he’s an outcast at school, struggling to participate, and soon befriends a tough kid named Tarby. When he slowly discovers his uncle is a warlock living in a magical home with his best friend, neighbor Florence who is also a witch, he tries to figure out how to participate in their ways. Lewis focuses on trying to control his growing powers, and learns about a cursed clock in the seams of the walls planted there by previous resident Izard. With the help of Jonathan and Florence, he hopes to put a stop to it, but accidentally unleashes the dead, posing a challenge for the trio.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” has a lot of potential from the outset, as everything seems to click with Amblin channeling a lot of their own cinematic aesthetic. There’s also Jack Black and Cate Blanchett who, despite the film, are quite entertaining in their respective roles as bickering friends. It’s too bad that they’re stuck in a movie that’s so painfully, utterly boring, and listless. Roth’s adaptation of the novel watches more like Straight to Video imitation of Amblin than actual an Amblin film. Roth can never seem to withdraw from his own horror roots to maintain some sense of wonder within the menace. Roth seems to think that the major appeal of films “Goonies” and “Harry Potter” is just the menace, thus he delivers on scenes that might prove to rattle the target audience.
A particular unveiling scene in the climax is pretty spooky. When he’s failing to tap in to this genre of dark fantasy for the kids, a lot of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” relies on flat humor that’s often dead on arrival. From a pooping chair, to a battle with vomiting jack o lanterns, it’s all so forgettable. The journey that character Lewis takes has so much emotional weight, Roth could very well have emphasized his own need for his parents once again, and how magic can lure us in to the dark side with our own human flaws. Instead Lewis feels more like a nuisance making dumb move after dumb move that jeopardize the safety of his uncle. To make things worse, the sub-plot of Lewis being visited at night by his dead mother, who encourages him to explore the house is unnerving and weird.
Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke delight in delivering plot twists in the second act, apparently meant to compensate for the sluggish and dull first half. But once the film literally stops to unveil the true villain, and everything he has up his sleeves, Roth is running on fumes, and seemingly racing to get to the closing credits as quickly as possible. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a poorly fit project for Roth who simply doesn’t have the skill to invoke a lot of the nostalgic Amblin qualities that he allegedly aims for. It’s a brutally lackluster, tedious, and sluggish family vehicle that makes magic and sorcery look absolutely bland.