December 6, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 40°F

Life & Culture

Review: Magic-filled children’s horror lacks charm

The House With a Clock in its Walls

Universal Pictures

Eli Roth — the creator of the gruesome “Hostel” series, the man behind the reviled torture-porn, jungle adventure “Green Inferno,” the writer of both versions of the horror-thriller “Cabin Fever” — has made a movie for children.

After Lewis Barnavelt’s (Owen Vaccaro) parents are killed in a car crash, he’s forced to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black). But neither Jonathan nor his house are typicalthe former is a trained warlock, and the latter is full of magic, menace and a mysterious mechanical ticking. Jonathan’s former colleagues, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry), hid a giant, evil clock in the walls of the house. In the year since Isaac’s death, Jonathan and his witch friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) have been trying to find and stop the clock.

“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” suffers from persistent incoherence. Isaac’s motivation makes sense on the surface — he wants to free humanity from trauma and pain — but the way he attempts to accomplish this goal does not. The clock hidden in Jonathan’s house, if activated, will reset the earth to a prehuman age, effectively purging the world of humanity. Think about that for a second. Isaac is presented as an intelligent character, as someone who can understand that eliminating every person who ever lived from existence isn’t the way to save the world. But because the plot demands a villain, he’s reduced to a cartoonish, world-ending goon.

Hollywood loves a romance, so it’s refreshing to see a highprofile film feature friendships over relationships. Florence and Jonathan support and encourage each other, working through challenges as a team. They’re still entertaining to watch when they’re separated: Black maintains his quirky charm throughout the movie, and Blanchett balances witty quips with tender emotional moments.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Lewis, who suffers from a case of bad child acting. Several serious moments are marred by Vaccaro’s over-the-top performance. A scene where he bursts into tears, clutching a toy his parents gave him immediately before their deaths, shouldn’t be funny, but it is. Lewis’ relationships are equally frustrating. His bond with another elementary school boy, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), is underdeveloped and unresolvedone moment they’re friends, the next they’re rivals, the next they’re summoning the dead together.

“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is a horror movie for children and has all the hallmarks of the genre: jump scares, demons and some wacky rooms full of creepy puppets. But in attempting to combine children’s cinema and compelling horror, Roth has made something that doesn’t succeed as either. The better horror elements, like Isaac’s encounter with the demon Azazel, are out of place with goofier moments like an attack by a bunch of bad CGI pumpkins. Roth pulls from adult horror to make something child-friendly, sanding down the harsher elements of the genre — the gore and the violence — and leaves behind a hollow shell of a film. The things that are scary to children aren’t necessarily the same things that would scare adults. Successful horror for children like “Coraline” or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” tap into broader, existential dread: the fear of neglectful parents or cruel authority figures. Standard scares featuring monsters or violence are often layered over the more primal fearsto great success. Unfortunately, Roth’s film is full of spooky atmosphere and creepy monsters but lacks any nuanced horror.

“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” sets out to fill the young-adult horror void and narrowly misses that goal. It’s a film that’s full of wonderful, creepy ideas that are either left half-explored or take ridiculous turns in the third act. Roth masters and iterates on the gothic haunted house subgenre, but beyond its aesthetic, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” fails to be spooky or charming.

Jake Leary can be reached at or via Twitter: @jd_leary