The House With a Clock in Its Walls is a very bad title for a movie. The unfortunate tagline—”This house knows what makes you tick.”—is even worse.
Fortunately, the film to which both the title and tagline do a disservice is actually an entertaining if slightly uneven adaptation of John Bellairs’s 1973 young-adult mystery novel, brought to the screen by an acting and directing team that deliver just about to expectations (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing).
Eli Roth (Hostel, Grindhouse, Death Wish) directs (from a script adapted by Eric Kirpke, a writer on “Supernatural”) a small ensemble through a family-friendly mystery that involves, yes, a house with a clock built into its walls. It’s 1954 and Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, Daddy’s Home, Mother’s Day) recently lost his parents in an accident, arriving by bus in West Zebedee, Michigan, to move in with his uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), a bachelor living alone in a mansion far too big for him. Jonathan’s neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is often at the house; the two share a friendship built on plenty of history, sharp wit and mutual respect.
All seems settled for Lewis as he starts a new school (befriending one of the cool kids in class, Tarby (Sunny Suljic, who you’ll next see leading Mid90s) and gets used to his new normal. But something wakes him up in the middle of the night—a persistent, loud ticking. When he investigates, he sees that Uncle Jonathan is also out with a flashlight investigating the sound. The sequence is the first hint of the scares Roth has in store for us, with foreboding framing and doomsday music underscoring the tension he’s so deft at cultivating in films meant for much older audiences. Roth may be working from a YA novel here, where the stakes are a little less gruesome than what he’s used to, but he’s loath to put aside his signature intensity just for the sake of the kids, and the film is better off for it.
Lewis quickly surmises that not all is normal at Uncle Jonathan’s house (what with the ticking and the moving furniture and all) and sure enough, Jonathan comes clean that he’s a warlock and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch, practicing all sorts of spells and incantations and the like. Jonathan also admits that the house they live in was once Isaac Izard’s (Kyle MacLachlan), a powerful but dangerous warlock who died one night a year earlier after trying a particularly precarious spell (that happened to require the murder of his own wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry).
Some fathers and sons play catch, some mothers and daughters bake; Lewis convinces Jonathan to teach him the magic he knows so well, and soon they’re bonding across a montage of silly spells gone wrong and beginner incantations executed flawlessly. Lewis uses his new skills fairly innocently (getting back at bullies at school, for example), even respecting Jonathan’s one rule: to never, ever open the heavily fortified cabinet in the library, no matter what.
We can see where this is going, no? Ultimately, the plot here is not what’s remarkable, predictable as it is (for grown-ups, at least; kids will probably be riveted). What Roth does around the script, from casting to creepy moments, is what keeps this potential new franchise (there are 12 books!) from being entirely pointless. Vaccaro holds his own throughout the film, but it’s Jack Black and Cate Blanchett who are worth the price of admission.
Count on Roth to deliver solid scares (and he does); count on Jack Black to over-act the shit out of a paper bag. His Uncle Jonathan is no exception, and Black’s goofy facial expressions and over-the-top execution, out of place in something more serious, are pitch perfect here. Abbott to Black’s Costello, Blanchett may be an odd casting choice at first glance, but she plays the straight-woman with such conviction (would we expect anything less?) that when she head-butts a CGI pumpkin (!) that’s attacking the three of them in a pivotal scene, it all seems practically refined. For the woman who routinely bares her soul on screen in Very Important Parts, this must’ve been like working at a carnival for a few weeks.
The film does itself a disservice when more than once it cheapens the whole affair with a few fart jokes (there must be some kind of requirement for films aimed at tweens?!), and there are other moments that don’t quite work either (see: Blanchett head-butts a pumpkin). But generally speaking, Roth should get credit for ratcheting down his brand of scary just enough—but not too much—while filling the spaces in between with Wonka-like colors and personalities that ensure the film plays with a fantastical flair. Fart jokes and head-butts aside, The House With a Clock in Its Walls might not warrant a massive franchise, and it certainly won’t go down as a modern classic like Hocus Pocus. But it’ll do just fine in an early-fall box office as parents look for seasonally appropriate movies to send their middle schoolers to.
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