The House with a Clock in Its Walls (3 stars)

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Eli Roth takes the helm of this atmospheric yet insufficiently charming kids' horror adaptation

Eli Roth is a name synonymous with violence and gratuitous gore, famous for films like Cabin Fever and Hostel. Surprisingly, Roth has now been handed the skeleton key to the first volume in a treasured series of children's horror books written by John Bellairs, and tasked with adapting it into family friendly fare.

Originally published in 1973, the novel was accompanied by gorgeous, gothic pen and ink illustrations by Edward Gorey, something which the production design alludes to with lush, detailed interiors that include a few of the sinister images. For the most part, Roth is interested in channelling the visuals and atmosphere of an Amblin classic from the 1980s, such as Gremlins or The Goonies, though he never manages to summon up the same emotional charm.

The story begins in 1955 in the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan, where an orphaned boy, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), has been sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who just happens to be a warlock. Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a close friend and powerful witch who has been helping Jonathan locate a malicious clock that has been hidden in the vast mansion of the late Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, in a deliciously wicked role).

The casting of Black makes complete sense, he's plumped up his CV recently with roles as endearing weirdoes in kids' movies, and The House with a Clock in Its Walls riffs heavily on his appearance in Goosebumps. The similarities between the two films are especially noticeable once the effectively spooky monsters come to life and start terrorising suburbia.

Writer Eric Kripke turns Jonathan into a pleasing Uncle Buck-type character as he bonds with Lewis, yet his attempts at humour fall flat with repetitive catty remarks and poo jokes. Thankfully, the novel's themes of grief and bravery propel the film towards a visually dark finale that makes the most of Roth's grisly approach to the material.

General release from Fri 21 Sep.

The House with a Clock in its Walls

  • 3 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 44min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Eli Roth
  • Cast: Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Owen Vaccaro
  • UK release: 21 September 2018

Lewis (Vaccaro) is an orphan sent to live with his mysterious uncle Jonathan (Black). Roth takes a break from gore to turn this children’s book into family fare, and it’s atmospheric, but lacks charm; still, Black is great casting and the themes of grief and bravery are handled well.