Some myths die harder than others.
But the self-sustaining hype of horror mogul Eli Roth was never much more than smoke and torture porn mirrors. Removed from that hype and outside of his narrow genre, as “Death Wish” made clear and “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” emphatically underlines, Eli Roth is mendacious mediocrity in movie director form.
A stillborn kiddie fright-fest that sucks the through the residual goodwill of Jack Black and Oscar winner Cate Blanchett in about 30 increasingly airless minutes, Roth’s adaptation of John Bellairs novel (script by that titan of cinematic letters, Eric Kripke) is an essay in “I don’t know how to make this work.”
It’s deathly slow, deadly-dull and makes one long for the days when it looked like he was shifting, full-time, into producing. As a director, Roth is Brett Ratner without #MeToo problems. And Brett Ratner, at least, knows that comedies and comic thrillers have to have pace.
In 1955, ten year-old Lewis (Owen Vacarro of “Daddy’s Home”) is packed off to New Zebedee, Michigan with a set of bow-ties, a pair of Captain Midnight goggles, two silver dollars and a bus ticket. His uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) has brought him there after the death of the kid’s parents.
And Lewis, in mourning still, trying to communicate with his mom (Jonathan’s sister) and dad through his Magic 8-Ball, doesn’t know what he’s in for.
Jonathan picks him up in colorfully bizarre attire.
“Is that a robe?”
“It’s a KIMONO.”
The house is this Queen Anne revival relic that the local kids call “The Slaughter House.” And everything about it is weird, from the self-playing organ and animated stained glass windows to the whimpering, puppy of a chair and the sphinx topiary that’s always pooping in the garden.
“Use the LITTER box!”
Jonathan’s neighbor Florence (Blanchett) is, like him, strange. Turns out he’s a warlock and she’s a witch. And their lovably-testy banter (“Tired old hag!”) promises a movie with the American whimsy and democratic meritocracy that the insufferable “Chosen One” Harry Potter movies lacked.
Lewis will learn the dark arts and earn his way into the profession, picking up life lessons about when to use magic and when not, the morality of unfair advantages and how it can help you realize who your true friends are.
Roth and his screenwriter make an utter hash of things, leaning almost entirely on special effects and overly baroque production design for entertainment value. There’s a lot of gawking at this monstrous Jack’O Lantern or that galaxy contained in a reflecting pool, glimpses of this critter and lessons on that spell.
Just like the worst of the Potter pictures.
The sweet spot here would have parked this somewhere between “Goosebumps” and “Goonies,” with Roth providing genuine frights for the little dears. He never finds that sweet spot.
The driving force of the story, that there’s this evil wizard’s clock hidden inside the walls, is never more than an afterthought. Kyle MacLachlan, playing that dead-spell-tosser in flashbacks and in moments of post-necromancy menace, has nothing funny or threatening to do.
The odd laugh interrupts the tedium, a classmate running for class president (Sunny Suljic of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer’) warning Lewis about the ax murder potential in that uncle — “I’m just trying to help us both out. You can’t VOTE for me if you done have arms.”
Roth gives himself a cameo as Captain Midnight. Perhaps acting’s where his real interest lies. Or he could have skipped that and concentrated on making the colorless kid a little more interesting and animated.
One hears from actors and filmmakers how little they watch movies outside of the ones they’re working on. And this tone-deaf blunder makes one wish Roth had watched Black’s scary and comical “Goosebumps” turn.
Perhaps Black should have watched that himself. He turned down the “Goosebumps” sequel for the chance to spar with Blanchett (not really) and tilt at the windmill that is Eli Roth and finds his comedy stylings frittered away into the ether instead of finding grounded laughs here.
In this case, the windmill simply unhorses the funnyman, and in the least funny way imaginable. And the windmill could have used a stiff breeze, or at least the breath of life.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Jack Black,Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp
Credits:Directed by Eli Roth, script by Eric Kripke, based on the John Bellairs novel. A Universal/Dreamworks release.
Running time: 1:44