After his popularity with teenage horror audiences in the creepy 2015 release, Goosebumps, Jack Black returns to that same young adult market as a friendly, kimono wearing warlock of dubious magical talents in the fantasy horror, The House with a Clock in its Walls.
Based on the 1973 novel of the same by John Bellairs, the first in a series of twelve, Black plays Jonathan Barnavelt, a practicing warlock who needs to practice a little more. He lives in an appropriately dark, bleak looking mansion that, when a full moon shines above, looks like something either The Addams Family, The Munsters, or maybe even The Great Race’s Professor Fate might feel at home in.
It’s 1955. A ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is recently orphaned. His only remaining family member is Uncle Jonathan, so young Lewis packs his bags and rides the bus to New Zebedee, a small town in Michigan where his uncle lives. “Things are quite different here,” Barnavelt tells the boy, and he’s right, the place, as Lewis will soon discover, is perfectly weird. And though it’s not quite Halloween, already there are evil looking jack-o’-lanterns decorating the gates to Barnavelt’s mansion. “I leave ‘em up all year round,” the uncle explains.
Once inside, Lewis meets Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), his uncle’s neighbor. Florence may live next door but she seems to be in the Barnavelt mansion all the time. And she’s a witch. “I melted Salvador Dali’s watch right off his wrist,” she informs the boy.
And if things didn’t feel weird enough for Lewis – clocks tick loudly, paintings move, and the lazy-boy in the living room whimpers and pants as though it was the friendliest of pups – there are noises at night that indicate his uncle is roaming the house into the early hours in constant search for something. Plus, just as the boy is trying to ignore everything he hears, as if in a dream, his recently departed mother (Lorenza Izzo) visits her son in the bedroom, hugs him, then tells him, “First you get the key, then you get the book.” It’s all rather mysterious, and with the sound of those clocks ticking away as if counting down to something, it’s also rather noisy.
As directed by hardcore gore-monger Eli Roth, The House with a Clock in its Walls. Roth’s first family-friendly feature, plus his first not be rated ‘R,’ while keeping close to the overall arc of things featured in the popular teenage novel, writer Eric Kripke has changed a few details that may surprise its YA readers. Lewis remains a shy outcast among his new school friends, but unlike the book, he’s not overweight, a plot point in the novel. Plus, when he makes a late night trek to the cemetery and commits the gravest of errors with a magic spell, it’s not the body of an evil woman called Selena he raises from the dead, but rather her equally evil husband, Issac (Kyle MacLachlan). Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry) will make her own appearance via a different route later in the film.
Shot widescreen with a colorfully attractive set design, there are plenty of small plot surprises throughout that should work for a younger audience, even if parents will feel they’ve seen it before, just with different wrappings. Plus, there’s a lot of humor aimed specifically at the early teenage set, like the flatulent topiary griffin in the backyard that blows brown leaves when nature unexpectedly calls. Fart jokes will always work, even when done by an animal-shaped garden shrub.
There’s also a keen sense of real cinematic magic, as when the boy, his uncle, and the neighbor walk among the floating stars, planets, and revolving galaxies raised from the glittering surface of the backyard pond. And when it gets intense and threatening, which is does a great deal, there’s enough to chill the younger set without them feeling the need to duck beneath their seat. Creepy dolls come alive and reach out, those jack-o’-lanterns attack, and a decaying body raises from the dead. Some parents may feel that the film is pushing its ‘PG’ rating to the limit, perhaps a little beyond, certainly more than a Disney feature might, but view the film through the eyes of its target audience and they’ll be wowed. And with Halloween fast approaching, those seven to twelve-year-olds are already prepped to be tricked and treated. Ask a fourth or fifth-grade school teacher.
Devotees of the John Bellair novels may also be happy with the film’s conclusion. Sequels are determined by the popularity of the first, but, just in case the return is better than expected, and it should, the film introduces an open door for more without things looking obvious. Like the book, young Lewis discovers a new friend at school; a young girl called Rose Rita Pottinger (Vanessa Anne Williams). The character has nothing to do with the plot of The House with the Clock in the Wall, but her brief inclusion and a friendship yet to be developed is an indication of maybe more to come. Let’s hope.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 104 Minutes