The House With a Clock in Its Walls is an enjoyably self-conscious throwback to an earlier era of scary-fun supernatural movies for kids too young to drive. Based on the 1973 novel by John Bellairs, who came to specialize in young adult gothic and supernatural mystery stories, it evokes both the live-action Disney films of the 1970s, including Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), Return From Witch Mountain (1978), and The Watcher in the Woods(1980), and the successive series of 1980s suburban fantastic movies-Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), Explorers (1985), and The Monster Squad (1987)-most of which were either produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment (which produced House) or were inspired by them. Kids today will, of course, intuit the film's various connections to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels and their subsequent film adaptations, especially as the story centers on a mistreated orphan who finds his agency through learning magic. Of course, there's a reason such stories get told, and told again, and told again: They connect with their young viewers emotionally and experientially, even if they involve things that they will never actually encounter.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls is chock full of supernatural wonders and blunders, and part of the film's fun is its laid-back comic vibe, which is never at odds with its meticulous visual design, with alternates between florid Technicolor garishness and This-Old-House murkiness (the cinematography is by Rogier Stoffers, who has worked on a wide range of projects, including the gorgeous and violent historical epic Mongol  and the gritty western Brimstone ). The film's arch humor is not particularly surprising given that the lead role of Jonathan Barnavelt, an eccentric and entirely competent warlock, is played by Jack Black, roguish Tenacious D frontman and expert eyebrow archer who never met a moment he couldn't elevate with some carefully modulated mugging. What is surprising, though, is what fantastic chemistry he has with Cate Blanchett as Florence Zimmerman, an erudite witch with a penchant for purple who lives next door and with whom he constantly trades good-natured barbs. Black and Blanchett immediately establish a warmly cutting back-and-forth of clever and witty insults and name-calling that would suggest they've been sharing a stage for decades, and it proves to be one of the film's greatest pleasures.
Jonathan lives in the titular house, a huge, rambling Gothic manor in the otherwise nondescript Michigan town of New Zebedee in the mid-1950s (the period setting is one of the film's major departures from the suburban fantastic Amblin movies of the past, which were almost always set in the present to maximize audience identification). Jonathan's house is a character unto itself-quite literally, in fact, as it is in the most basic sense alive and sentient, aware of what and who is within its walls and capable of adjusting itself physically (there is a giant stained glass window at the top of the massive staircase that changes periodically and an easy chair that acts like a family pet). Into this weirdly wonderful world arrives Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), an awkward 10-year-old who has just lost both of his parents in a car accident. Jonathan is his uncle and, apparently, his only living relative, so he is sent to live with him. While at first Jonathan tries to hide the supernatural nature of both his house and his own activities, he can't disguise it for long and soon Lewis is begging to learn magic. Lewis, who wears a pair of aviator googles on his head in homage to his favorite television character, is not a particularly popular kid, and there is a running joke about his being constantly picked last in gym class. He is shown some sympathy by Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), one of the more popular kids at school, but as we soon learn, appearances can be deceiving and intentions matter.
The general thrust of the plot involves the titular clock in the wall of Jonathan's house, which was put there by its previous occupant, a devious (and now deceased) warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Rene Elise Goldsberry). The exact nature of this clock, what it does, and most importantly, what it will do once it finishes counting down, is the film's central mystery. While Jonathan at first passes it off as nothing more than an annoyance-the warlock version of a practical joke-the fact that he spends his nights creeping through the house listening to the walls to determine its whereabouts suggests that there is something much more dangerous involved. And after Lewis, in a desperate attempt to impress Tarby with his magical abilities, brings Isaac back from the dead, things get really bad.
Scripted by Eric Kripke, creator of the television series Revolution and Supernatural, The House With a Clock in Its Walls has a great deal about it that is genuinely enjoyable, although as it becomes more frantic in its second half, it also begins to feel more generic. The film's best moments are in its character interactions, as Lewis becomes more comfortable in Jonathan's odd world of supernatural phenomena, which stands in stark contrast to the decidedly banal world of Eisenhower-era small town Americana just outside the walls of his house (Colleen Camp, a staple of '80s comedies, has an amusingly kooky role as a nosy neighbor). As previously mentioned, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett have wonderful chemistry, and their rat-a-tat wordplay has more infectious energy than the film's big, special-effects-laden action sequences.
What is perhaps most curious about the film, though, is that it was directed by Eli Roth, a cinematic provocateur par excellence (or par vomitif) who until now has been known exclusively for helming extremely gory, darkly comedic horror films like Cabin Fever (2002), Hostel (2005), and The Green Inferno (2013). And, while Roth is often derided for the extremity of his films, there is always a unique intelligence lurking beneath the blood and guts, and he more often than not has something interesting to say about human nature. He appears to be in the process of broadening his horizons, first with his Death Wish remake earlier this year with Bruce Willis and now with a PG-rated kids films (albeit one that packs some genuine scares). Maybe, having shocked and appalled and scandalized and disturbed people for so many years, the most shocking thing he could do now is direct something family-friendly (remember in 1999 when both David Lynch and David Mamet directed G-rated movies?). But, what Roth proves more than anything is that he is a gifted visual stylist who is particularly good at updating older forms for a modern audience (as he has noted in interviews, he grew up with the '80s Amblin movies on which The House With a Clock in Its Walls is riffing). Lest we forget, updating the entertainment of one's childhood is exactly what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, and while I'm not saying that Roth is operating at their caliber, The House With a Clock in Its Walls certainly suggests that he capable of a much greater range than previously assumed, and we can only hope that he will continue to explore those possibilities.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
Get a daily dose of Los Angeles Herald news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.