Eli Roth dials his horror instincts down a few notches to direct The House with a Clock in its Walls – a family comedy-horror tale that’s much more comedy than horror.
Based on John Bellairs’ book of the same name, The House with a Clock in its Walls is the story of Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro, Daddy’s Home 1 & 2), who has been orphaned and is taken in by his Uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Goosepimples).
It takes next to no time at all for Lewis to learn that his Uncle Jonathan is a warlock – and that his best friend, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, Thor: Ragnarok, Ocean’s Eight), is a witch.
Uncle Jonathan is a no rules kinda guy – chocolate chip cookies for dinner? No bedtime? Cool!
The one rule he does have is, therefore, to be taken with all due seriousness: one cupboard in the Barnavelt home is locked and never to be opened. What Lewis doesn’t know – and what we learn pretty quickly – is that the house’s previous owner, a powerful warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks, Portlandia) is somehow involved. It’s thought that Izard died trying to cast a particularly difficult spell – taking his wife, Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry, Altered Carbon) with him.
Otherwise, Uncle Jonathan is the softest of touches. He even succumbs to Lewis’ pleas to learn magic.
At school, things are different – even the kid on crutches is chosen for a team before the goggles-wearing Lewis, and no one except for Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) will have anything to do with him. (In Tarby’s case, it’s because he has a broken arm and no one else will pitch batting practice for him – and he’s very good one-handed).
Naturally, Tarby figures in Lewis’ breaking of Uncle Jonathan’s one rule.
Adapted by Erick Kripke (Supernatural, Timeless), The House with a Clock in its Walls is filled with oddities that can be disturbing (and for little kids, downright scary): there are clocks on every wall, dozens of them (from a cuckoo clock with a Satanic cuckoo to grandfather clocks); creepy toys; pumpkin guards and horseshoe wards; an ominous ticking that seems to come from within the walls, and a stained glass window that that keeps changing.
Uncle Jonathan and Florence have a wonderful relationship – when things are going well, they hurl cheerfully wicked nicknames at each other; when things are, going, well, less well, we can see that the affection between them is as deep as the direst circumstance.
Roth may be directing a PG film here, but he still trots out a few good jump moments and a few genuinely creepy moments that will have little kids hiding their eyes or hugging their parents.
For adults, there’s the fine chemistry between Black, Blanchett and Vacarro – who seem, almost instantly, to become a family, and MacLachlan’s equally fine performance as Izard (who is both more and less than he seems).
Black plays Uncle Jonathan in the Jack Blackest of ways, while Blanchett plays Florence as a kind of affectionate, schoolmarish middle-aged woman who isn’t afraid to upbraid her best friend when he gets it wrong.
Vacarro plays Lewis perhaps a bit too highly strung, but definitely gets the audience to feel his insecurities.
Rogiers Stoffers’ cinematography is gorgeous. He makes the Barnavelt house menacing and welcoming in turn, and always leaves things to be found on successive screenings.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is a solid family film that might be a bit intense for kids six and under.
It’s a lot of fun and we can all use a bit of fun, can’t we.
Final Grade: B+