American films

The House with a Clock in Its Walls film review: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett in children’s fantasy

Director Eli Roth’s gothic horror is like a poor man’s Tim Burton, with jokes that fall flat and few shocks, but there is no denying the stars’ talent, and the film is passably entertaining

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 7:02pm

3/5 stars

There’s a much better film inside The House with a Clock in Its Walls than director Eli Roth managed to get on to the screen. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett essay their respective roles as a cheerful warlock and a kind-hearted witch with aplomb, the spooky old house looks perfectly mysterious, and the wicked beasties are suitably, as Black’s character often points out, “Creepy!”

Death Wish review: Bruce Willis exacts vigilante justice in sadistically violent thriller

But all the jokes fall flat and the story never gets going, plodding along with little excitement and precious few shocks. The film falls squarely in Tim Burton territory, but lacks the magic and precision direction that eccentric master filmmaker brings. Still Roth, who’s better known for horror nasties such as Hostel, does make his first attempt at a child-friendly horror passably entertaining, even if the result feels like a missed opportunity to utilise the talents at his disposal.

The film is based on a novel by the late John Bellairs, who specialised in writing gothic horrors for teens, and unspools like a less sophisticated version of Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children . The setting is steampunk in nature and teems with spooky Victoriana. Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), an unusual boy who likes to wear racing goggles, moves in with his jovial uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents die in a crash.

When Lewis finds out that Jonathan is a warlock, and his friend Florence (Blanchett) is a witch, Lewis takes up a magical apprenticeship. There’s just one rule in Jonathan’s big old house – don’t unlock the cabinet which contains the book on necromancy, the tome with the spells to bring the dead back to life. It’s not hard to guess what happens next.

Black is perfectly cast as the cheerful warlock, who is a suitable foil for his portly build and natural sense of humour. The actor noticeably references the great Orson Welles in his performance – as well as being a director and actor, Welles was an amateur magician who loved tricks like pulling rabbits out of hats. Blanchett is good too, and her witch manages to be stern, loving and friendly at the same time – is there anything this actress can’t do?

The House with a Clock in Its Walls opens on October 18

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook