OK, we’ll bite: What’s splatter-horror specialist Eli Roth (“Hostel”) doing directing “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” a family-targeted, PG-rated supernatural romp starring Jack Black? One answer: not making anything as distinctive as those familiar with Roth’s hard-R oeuvre might anticipate, just a likably cast, mildly diverting Halloween appetizer that serviceably channels early Harry Potter.
Adapted from a ’70s juvenile-lit novel by John Bellairs, “House” is also a product of the book’s whimsically gothic Edward Gorey illustrations, with several dashes of Jean Shepherd-esque Americana tossed in as well. Recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, “Daddy’s Home”) definitely feels like a character out of “A Christmas Story,” with his Captain Midnight goggles, Ovaltine-decoder savvy, and general air of being swept along by an adult-dictated current.
It’s 1955, and the grown-up making Lewis’s life both interesting and confounding is his uncle and new guardian, Jonathan (Black), whose spooky Victorian spread and arcane late-night puttering soon reveal him to be an honest-to-gosh warlock. (Who needs “Goosebumps 2”? Not Black, apparently.) Jonathan and his similarly mystical friend and neighbor, spirited Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, resplendent in purple), welcome Lewis warmly, priming him on their offbeat world and accommodating his eagerness to learn magic. But why are they so cagey about the ominously ticking clock hidden somewhere in the house and the past homeowner who put it there?
We’ll float the spoiler that the mystery man, Isaac Izard, is played by Kyle MacLachlan — which sounds like a case of slyly mining MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper kooksville cred, except that he’s barely recognizable under gnarly effects makeup. “Avengers” may have prepped kids for this baddie’s existence-imperiling Thanos complex; but be cautioned, the character’s overall creep factor is more intense than, say, the movie’s puking pumpkins or farting griffin. This is still Eli Roth, after all – just as it was Newton product Roth giving Bruce Willis’s “Death Wish” remake an extra jolt of graphically fetishized violence earlier this year. (Similarly, some may recognize the stamp of “Supernatural” series creator Eric Kripke as the writer adapting “House.”)
These darker notes aren’t purely gratuitous. The movie deftly incorporates some brief, intriguing commentary on real-life horror — specifically, the inhumanity of World War II, and how it irrevocably changed everyone from MacLachlan’s lost soul to standout Blanchett’s quietly soul-sick sorceress. Tricky territory to navigate, but it ultimately lends some genuine poignancy to the story’s familiar accidental-family themes. If there’s someplace Roth makes a mark, it’s here.
THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS
Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eric Kripke, based on the novel by John Bellairs. Starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan. Boston theaters, suburbs; screens with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick. 104 mins. PG (thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor, language).