Let’s give 2018 this much: It’s the year that we finally got to see Cate Blanchett head-butt a pumpkin. To be more specific, it’s a bloated jack-o’-lantern, one projectile-puking seeds and pulp, a beast that’s just one of the jolly, jolting delights unleashed in the raving last third of Eli Roth’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Roth’s film is a funhouse throwback, a scare-the-kids goof with a top-shelf cast, an antique shop’s worth of creepy windup dolls and more heart than you might expect. Its final third is a series of inventive, funny, just-frightening-enough horror-comedy set pieces that split the difference between Goosebumps and a good Tim Burton film.
Of course, in adapting John Bellairs’ beloved young-adult mystery from 1973, set in a warlock’s Victorian mansion in 1955, Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke commit some of the usual sins of today’s kids movies. They lavish more attention than necessary on the digestive tract of the warlock’s topiary griffin, for example, and hustle everything along too quickly, even in the early reels. These scenes find the dictionary-obsessed, recently orphaned fourth-grader Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) sent off to live with his wild-eyed stage-magician uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). Edward Gorey himself drew the home in illustrations in Bellairs’ book, and you might guess that as you savor Jon Hutman’s splendidly cobwebbed production design.
Since the movie is in such a hurry, we’re not given much chance to soak in this strangeness. Making up for it: Black is paired with Blanchett, who plays a neighboring witch in smashing violet skirt ensembles; the two rat-a-tat insults at each other like a vaudevillian comedy duo.