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‘The House With a Clock in Its Walls’ Just Ticked Away

3 STARS—Dir. Eli Roth

In “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” the aforementioned clock doesn’t torment only main characters, Jonathan (Jack Black) and Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), but the audience as well; it is a constant reminder of the excruciatingly slow pace of the first half of this film. Its dramatic opening comes to a screeching halt as soon as Jonathan and Lewis first meet. Lewis’s recitals of dictionary definitions and the cliché three-piece suit with matching aviator goggles that he wears make it obvious (if the painfully awkward dialogue didn’t already) that his intelligence makes him an outcast. Jonathan is a rehash of every character Jack Black has played, only this time, he’s a cooky warlock. But a surprisingly standout performance comes from Florence (Cate Blanchett), the widowed witch with a legendary reputation, who helps Jonathan resolve the mystery.

An adaptation of the 1973 novel of the same name by John Bellairs, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” starts off with a recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt moving in with his mother’s brother, Jonathan Barnavelt, an experienced warlock of average power by his own account. Lewis is initially suspicious of the spooky house his uncle inhabits, and soon learns his uncle’s magical secret. Given the chance to become a warlock himself, Lewis trains tirelessly and eventually surpasses Jonathan’s expectations. Secretly hoping to bring his dead mother back to life, he commits a grave mistake and shamefully hides it. Just as an eclipse nears, their powers are put to the test as they confront a past that won’t give up without a fight. Released right before the Halloween season, this average, low-budget film seems to cater to young audiences before scarier films, like “Halloween” (2018), start premiering.

The movie’s potential to redefine the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” genre for a new generation is undercut by Eric Kripke’s incredibly cheesy writing. The script caters to Black’s overdone sense of humor and follows virtually every trope of a Halloween horror movie, from live Jack-O-Lanterns to possessed marionettes. Making matters worse, Jonathan and Lewis have virtually no onscreen chemistry despite being family. The only time the writers hit the nail on the head is when Jonathan tells Lewis, “I can give you the right books, teach you the right spells, but that last one percent, that's up to you.” The painfully corny lines do little to make Vaccaro’s job easier, making it harder for him to bring that one percent. In every scene with Lewis and Florence, Blanchett’s performance makes Vaccaro’s seem lifeless, though Blanchett’s illustrious career and experience would no doubt put her at an advantage to showcase the character. Blanchett’s phenomenal portrayal of Florence made it so that every scene between Florence and Jonathan genuinely showcases the film’s potential, if only its casting director had just cast a different lead actor.

Director Eli Roth’s influence definitely compensates for the script. His experience with horror, having directed notable films like “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel,” makes the scenes featuring demons and witchcraft seem jarringly out of place for a supposed children’s film. The scenes are artistically unique and would fit into any R-rated horror blockbuster. The film’s score is also impressive, creating a rich atmosphere that grips the audience to their seats with impeccable timing. From a technical aspect, the film has incredible potential. But a weak script and flat acting plague it throughout.

While the film definitely explains that a warlock is definitely more than “a boy witch,” it fails to breathe new life into a story that’s been around since “Fantasia” (1940). “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is just another cliché Halloween-themed children’s horror movie that just serves to entertain, rather than innovate an existing trope, as the the clock ticks on. While Cate Blanchett and Eli Roth are remarkable, the film fails to overcome poorly written dialogue and subpar acting by the lead character.

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