This week in plot-point coincidences, there are two new pictures — “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” and “Life Itself” — in which a child is sent to live with a weird uncle after losing Mom and Dad in a car crash. One of these is a full-on horror movie, as patently unbelievable as it is genuinely terrifying, full of cheap shocks and torturous metaphysics and sporting perhaps the most annoying title of the year.
The other one, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” is a moderately transporting, visually elaborate young-adult fantasy directed by Eli Roth, not a name typically associated with family-friendly entertainment. His other movies, which include “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel” and this year’s risible remake of “Death Wish,” are ghastly exercises in Grand Guignol, prone to deliver graphic scenes of murder and dismemberment with a self-satisfied smirk.
Happily, the only things dismembered here are the audience’s expectations. Adapted by Eric Kripke (of the TV series “Supernatural”) from a memorable 1973 novel by John Bellairs, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” represents a creaky but productive change of pace. The loathsome smirk has been replaced by a genial wink. At his best, Roth plunders elements from countless other tales of supernatural spookery — ominous spell books, shuddering tombstones, grown men and little kids shooting lightning bolts from their fingertips — and nudges them eerily close to genuine enchantment.
Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a bookish, newly bereaved 10-year-old, goes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, boisterous but contained) in a small Michigan town called New Zebedee. The year is 1955, as we can see from every wondrous detail of Jon Hutman’s production design: The local diner sells gumballs and Ovaltine milkshakes, and Lewis arrives on a bus that might have been driven onto the studio lot from another recent Cold War-era fantasy, “The Shape of Water.”
The international conflict looming in the background of this particular story, however, is the Second World War, whose lingering horrors are inextricable from the dark, apocalyptic fury that pulses steadily, much like that eponymous clock, at the heart of the story. Which is not to suggest that “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is a stealth geopolitical allegory or a treatise on the origins of human evil. It is nothing more — or less — than a fun movie about a haunted house, albeit one whose inhabitants are governed less by a spirit of terror than of genial, infectious mischief.
The two, of course, can be easily confused. Lewis is initially creeped out by the sight of Jonathan stalking the halls of the house at night, tapping on walls and tinkering with the clocks, of which there is an unusually high number. But after Jonathan drops his guard and lets Lewis in on a few secrets, introducing him to a hidden world of witches and warlocks, the place starts to feel less like Amityville than like Lewis’ own private Hogwarts.
For all its loud wallpaper and diverting CGI bric-a-brac, this lavish reimagining of Casa Barnavelt cannot quite compete with the book’s illustrations, rendered by the great Edward Gorey, for sheer evocative strangeness. Still, there is plenty to marvel at here, from the sentient jack o’lanterns and flatulent plant sculptures to the stained-glass window whose colorful images seem to morph every hour. Best of all is Jonathan’s eccentric purple-clad neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), always on hand to dispense chocolate-chip cookies and friendly advice, plus a playful insult for Jonathan, who gives as good as he gets.
As her performances in “Thor: Ragnarok” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies attest, Blanchett can always be counted on to enliven a big-screen fantasy with expert professionalism and zero condescension. Here, she makes a splendidly witchy warrior, her every crisp line reading and deadpan, bespectacled glance serving to boost the movie’s confidence as well as the audience’s.
The other actors gratefully follow her lead: Vaccaro, a dead ringer for a young Logan Lerman, anchors the proceedings in appealing fashion, though a more attentive director might have made him a more convincing cryer. Still, he achieves just the right rapport with Black, no stranger to roles in which he gets to jabber nonsense and take a kid under his wing (the movie might easily have been titled “School of Clock”).
Together Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman make a pair of bumbling but affectionate surrogate parents, though they know more about teaching Lewis spells and charms — plus an all-important lesson about being himself and no one else — than about shielding him from the more prosaic terrors of childhood. Where Lewis is concerned, the dangers posed by a renascent warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, in an inspired bit of post-“Twin Peaks” casting) are nothing next to the fear of being rejected by his only school friend, Tarby (Sunny Suljic, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”).
Like many other juvenile fantasies, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” draws some of its power from the notion that the wonders of magic and the perils of adolescence are inextricably connected. But at this promising if tentative phase of his career, Roth still has a thing or two to learn about coaxing forth honest, lived-in emotions. The untimely deaths of a child’s parents are, of course, a sadistic staple of many a beloved fairy tale. But it’s not the only respect in which this often perfunctory, mechanical story tries and fails to touch deeper chords of grief and longing.
Where the director clearly excels, as always, is in generating a sense of menace. Without violating the codes of a PG rating, he shows his natural gift for goosing the audience from scene to scene: a jump scare in a darkened hallway, a magical attack that draws a bit more blood than you’d expect. Your kids are more apt to be tickled than terrified. Roth may not have made a children’s tale for the ages, but he knows the best ones are often the freakiest.
‘The House With a Clock in Its Walls’
Rating: PG, for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release