The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a magical, kid-friendly horror flick with exceptionally fun performances by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls follows in the long Hollywood tradition of adapting classic children’s novels for family-friendly fare. Earlier this year, Disney didn’t quite hit the mark with their big-budget adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, but not for lack of trying on director Ava DuVernay’s part. Now, Universal sets out to adapt the arguably lesser known 1973 mystery children’s story The House with a Clock in Its Walls written by John Bellairs, with illustratrations by Edward Gorey. The novel spawned a series that consists of 12 books, with the most recent being released in 2008 (though author Brad Strickland took over following the passing of Bellairs in 1991). Now, the books find new life in a big-screen adaptation. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a magical, kid-friendly horror flick with exceptionally fun performances by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls follows 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who goes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents die in a car accident and he’s left orphaned. However, Jonathan’s house isn’t normal, it’s full of ticking clocks and other strange things – things that scare the young boy. Nothing is scarier, though, than the ominous ticking that seems to be coming from within the walls. After confronting his uncle, Jonathan tells Lewis that he’s a warlock, and his next door neighbor and friend Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett) is a witch – though she’s much more powerful than Jonathan. Lewis pleads for Jonathan to teach him magic, and his uncle relents, tutoring the boy in the mystical arts.
As Lewis’ magical education continues, strange, scary things still happen in Uncle Jonathan’s house – which Lewis’ new friend Tarby (Sunny Suljic) calls the slaughter house because, he says, a man was murdered there with an ax. Lewis eventually learns, though, that the man who lived in the house before Jonathan was a warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle McLaughlin), who died mysteriously. Unfortunately, Lewis and Tarby drift apart as friends and in an effort to win him back, Lewis reveals his magical abilities and decides to prove them. In doing so, though, Lewis summons a great evil that, along with the ominous ticking of the clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house, could bring destruction to the world. It’s up to Lewis, Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman to save defeat the evil and save the day.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls comes from horror master Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), who’s made a name for himself with violent, R-rated fare, but proves himself adept at a different kind of horror with this family-friendly feature. Though House with a Clock in Its Walls is undoubtedly muted for the kids its intended for, Roth effectively balances tension-building scenes – aided by Nathan Barr’s soundtrack – with horrific payoffs for some fun frights. Plus, the film has a skillfully written script by Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Timeless) that intertwines fantastical elements with horror and grounds it all in compelling characters – though, the movie undoubtedly favors the arcs of Black’s Jonathan and Blanchett’s Florence over Lewis, who is ostensibly the main character. Still, House with a Clock in Its Walls is undoubtedly a Kripke script, with plenty of humor and heart for viewers of all ages, that’s brought to life with Roth’s keen eye for horror.
Where The House with a Clock in Its Walls stumbles is in pacing, lagging at times and moving foward a breakneck speed at others. This tends to be typical of film adaptations that aim to stay as true to the book as possible, using montages to show the passing of time (as is the case with Lewis’ magical education) then cramming multiple major set pieces together – which is how the third act of The House with a Clock in Its Walls feels. It’s not a massive detriment to the movie, since these stumbles are only in certain portions of the film’s one hour and 45 minute runtime. Otherwise, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a tightly woven and entertaining adventure. Further, even in the moments when the movie lags, it’s typically for a wondrously beautiful bit of magic that will keep viewers enthralled.
Still, the stars of The House with a Clock in Its Walls aren’t the magic or even Vaccaro’s Lewis, it’s Black and Blanchett, who serve as the two core characters in the film’s story. Kripke, who has created such beloved on-screen teams as Supernatural’s Winchester brothers and Timeless‘ Lifeboat team, puts his stamp on the duo of Jonathan and Florence, who trade fun barbs and banter throughout the film. For their parts, Black and Blanchett bring effervescent life to their roles, seemingly having as much fun playing the over-the-top characters as viewers will have watching them on screen. Though Black and Blanchett work best together – particularly with Blanchett working exceptionally well as the straight man to Black’s typically boisterous humor – they also bring a compelling amount of depth to their characters. Unfortunately, this also means the rest of the cast gets short-changed. Vaccaro does hold his own, for the most part, alongside the adult stars. However, McLaughlin and fellow supporting actress Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays Isaac Izard’s wife Selena, get very little to do and their characters suffer greatly for it (though they still bring some fun to the table).
In terms of the film overall, The House with a Clock in Its Walls actually seems to draw inspiration from a number of classic, popular and even less well known movies and shows. But, by virtue of Bellairs’ novel predating many of them, The House with a Clock in Its Walls never comes off as a cheap knockoff of another property. It’s got elements in common with Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Practical Magic, 13 Ghosts, and even A Christmas Story, but still manages to stand on its own as an enjoyable family-friendly fantasy-horror film. Instead of feeling derivative, The House with a Clock in Its Walls comes off as one long homage to cinematic history, borrowing from everything that came before in order to create something new.
Ultimately, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an incredibly solid children’s adventure that adults will be able to enjoy as well, though it may be too scary for younger kids. Its visuals and magical moments are stunning on the big screen, but may not warrant a trip to IMAX, where the sometimes-clunky CGI is unfortunately easier to see. Though it may not become a classic like previous Amblin-produced family adventures, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an entertaining ride with plenty of fun and compelling characters – not to mention, quirky magical household items that will enchant viewers.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 104 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language.
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- The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018) release date: Sep 21, 2018