Spookiness rattles the screen just enough to give kids a shiver – and more than a few laughs – in “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” Because it takes place in 1955, neither laptop nor cellphone figures into this engaging, if less than wholly transformational, story.
The scary movie is based on a 1973 book by John Bellairs, with illustrations by Edward Gorey – the first in a 12-book series, so beware of sequels. The filmmakers have said that they hoped to capture the magic of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Gremlins” (both co-produced, as is this film, by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment), but it doesn’t hit that stratosphere. “House” sometimes loses track of convoluted plot points and skimps on exteriors. But it does a fine job of capturing the childlike wonderment that suffused those earlier films.
Looming Victorian mansions with spiky wrought iron fences greet the film’s young protagonist, Lewis (a somewhat flat Owen Vaccaro), a newly orphaned 10-year-old who gets off the bus in small-town Michigan to live with his eccentric – and that’s putting it mildly – Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black).
Sad and lonely, Lewis wears goggles that have sentimental value, clinging to a Magic 8-Ball that he hopes will bring messages from his dead parents. But he’ll need more than that to get through the adventures ahead.
Jonathan’s mansion has room after room of ticking clocks and life-size automatons, as well as a recliner that behaves like a dog and an ever-changing stained-glass window. (Production designer Jon Hutman deserves much credit, as does the film’s special effects team.)
“The house likes you,” Jonathan tells his nephew, which is how Lewis learns that his uncle – an amateur warlock wearing a beard, beer belly and full-length kimono, and driving a smoke-belching jalopy – practices magic. Jonathan’s next door neighbor and best pal (Cate Blanchett, in fine regal form), is a witch, with whom he trades affectionate insults.
Screenwriter Eric Kripke walks a neat tonal tightrope in his adaptation of the book, shifting its 1948 setting to the 1950s, and bringing a zappiness to the banter and scary stuff that should satisfy 21st-century kids.
Horror-meister Eli Roth (“Hostel”) directs with a solid feel for the way kids like to be frightened, then reassured, lacing nearly all the frights with humor, which is, after all, right in Black’s irreverent wheelhouse.
The movie often echoes the “Harry Potter” films, as Lewis begs Jonathan to teach him magic, and his uncle makes him read books and practice spells. Here, however, the teacher is an amateur, and the small-town atmosphere feels quite different from Hogwarts.
At school, Lewis tries to impress a potential friend (Sunny Suljic), inadvertently raising an evil magician (Kyle MacLachlan) from the dead – one who had hidden a doomsday clock in the walls of Jonathan’s mansion.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is wildly original, but in a pleasant way. It’s a throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking, in which the benefits of new technology are neatly disguised in old-school storytelling.