If you want to scare the kiddies but still keep them giggling, Jack Black is your man. This peerless comic actor can do more with an arched eyebrow than a crazy-car stuffed with clowns, and it’s that old Black magic that ignites The House With a Clock in Its Walls, a supernatural tale set in 1955 in New Zebedee, Michigan (a town with its very own haunted mansion). The School of Rock star plays Jonathan, the warlock who occupies the premises; when he isn’t trying to find the source of the menacing tick-tock emanating from the walls, he’s trading congenial insults with the witch next door, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, all dry wit and good-sport gusto). Classy company. Then a young stranger moves in. He’s Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a 10-year-old whose parents have both died in a car crash. Uncle Jonathan is all this misfit kid has. So what if it’s weird to live in a place where furniture comes to life, and the house pet is a living shrubbery that farts?
Based on the acclaimed 1973 children’s novel by John Bellairs, The House With a Clock in Its Walls — with a busy script by Eric Kripke — lacks the book’s artfully unnerving Edward Gorey illustrations. What it does have, besides Jon Hutman’s dazzling production design, is Eli Roth in the director’s chair. Don’t lock up the kids. Freaky-deaky Roth is not indulging in the torture porn that made his name in a series of Hostel horrorshows. The filmmaker treads gently this time, though fans should know that the PG rating hasn’t neutered him. When Owen accidentally brings evil warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) back from the dead, the film raises the spectre of Nazi terror with the bad guy’s plan to eliminate the human race. Tough topic for kids to digest with cookies and milk. Luckily, Roth keeps the plot on the run and the visuals eye popping. When Owen brings up the possibility of romance between Florence and his uncle, she quickly points out there’s “nothing kissyface going on.”
That’s a relief — funny how global annihilation is always preferable to personal intimacy in family entertainment. Recalling Gremlins, The Goonies and every other fantasy that Steven Spielberg dreamed up in the 1980s, this bustling magic show promises a thrill ride of scares and giggles. The something extra comes with watching Black and Blanchett match wits, especially the former; he radiates his signature comic moxie with glimmers of the dramatic chops he demonstrated in movies like Bernie (2011) and this year’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. There are shadows even in a funhouse mirror, and The House with a Clock in Its Walls works best when it lets us see there are real feelings at stake.