“The House with a Clock in its Walls,” which debuted in theaters Sept. 21 is a children’s novel turned into a film adaption that kids and parents alike are excited to see.
There has been a long-standing tradition in Hollywood of remaking classic children’s novels into movies and “The House with a Clock in its Walls” is next in line. The original story was penned by John Bellairs in 1973 and illustrated by Edward Gorey. It was a cult classic that produced 12 sequels, although the series was taken over by Brad Strickland after Bellairs passing in 1991.
The movie opens on the fictional suburb of New Zebedee, Michigan, in 1955. Newly orphaned 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro) is coming to live with his estranged uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black). His uncle becomes his guardian after Owen’s parents pass away in a tragic car accident. Owen, himself, is an odd boy, with his ever-present goggles and his obsession with learning new words. It seems apparent that he won’t be making many friends at school.
As soon as we see Jonathan’s house we start to see some of the magical whimsy that was promised by the original novel. The old house has jack-o-lanterns that stay out year-round, a stained glass window that changes pictures, a chair that acts like a dog and a room full of dozens of the creepiest dolls you’ve ever seen. Not to mention the hundreds of clocks all over the house and the eternal, ominous ticking coming from inside the walls.
All of this scares Lewis, and eventually he confronts his uncle about the weird occurrences in the house. Jonathan reveals that he is a powerful warlock and his best friend and next-door neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is an even more powerful witch. Lewis begs Jonathan to teach him magic and he begrudgingly obliges.
Throughout the movie, Lewis finds a friend named Tarby (Sunny Suljic) who helps him fit in at school. Unfortunately, Tarby and Lewis grow apart and in a desperate effort to get his only friend back, Lewis decides to tell Tarby about his magic. When Tarby doesn’t believe him, he tries to prove it by performing a necromancy spell that brings Isaac Izard (Kyle McLaughlin) back from the dead. Izard is an evil warlock who created a clock that would turn back time to the very beginning of the world, effectively killing all the people on the planet. Jonathan, Florence and Lewis must work together to stop his evil plan from coming to fruition.
The books had a delightful darkness, yet heartwarming storyline that people of all ages adored. The movie was directed by horror alum Eli Roth, best known for his movies “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel.” As a director who is famous for his violent, gory R-rated flicks, he has gone in a completely different direction in this family-friendly spooky movie. His typical scares are obviously muted for his intended audience and the movie is set at PG. Combined with the humor and heart of a script written by Eric Kripke of “Supernatural” fame, we see a kooky horror movie reminiscent of “Goosebumps” and “Halloweentown.”
Kripke’s writing shows through with his compelling characters. Black and Blanchett give exceptionally fun performances and are the stand-out feature of this movie. Their characters have an interesting platonic friendship, throwing barbs and banter at each other that gets progressively better throughout the film. Kripke has been known to write amazing duos, such as the Winchester brothers from “Supernatural.”
Florence is a powerful witch, entirely clad in purple, who can’t perform magic anymore due to a personal tragedy, so she spends the entire movie baking cookies. Her counterpart, Jonathan, is a less powerful warlock who’s over-the-top actions balance out Florence’s more subtle, uptight demeanor. Lewis, although meant to be the main character, often gets overshadowed by his two co-stars. Whether it’s because of the script or the natural chemistry between Black and Blanchett, Lewis comes off a bit like a killjoy.
“The House with the a Clock in its Walls” tends to lag in it’s pacing, with some scenes getting a lot of attention, while others are set on hyperspeed. Sometimes it feels as if the movie is galloping along instead of at a steady, smooth pace. Although, the pace is a little off in some parts, the movie makes up for it and keeps the audience interested with wondrous little bits of magic.
Overall, the film has a feeling as if it has borrowed pieces of content from several classic, and even some lesser known, children’s movies such as “Harry Potter” or “Series of Unfortunate Events.” Since Bellairs novel predated many of these movies, “The House with the Clock in its Walls” never feels like a cheap knock off. Although it may not have become a classic like those before it, “The House with the Clock in its Walls” is still a solid fantasy-horror movie that the whole family can enjoy.