In The House with a Clock in Its Walls, poor man’s Jacob Tremblay, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moves into his Uncle Jonathan’s (Jack Black) house in Michigan following the untimely death of his parents. The house, decorated at the gate with year-round pumpkins, is filled with clocks. One of these clocks resides within the walls.
Jonathan is a bearded man who wears kimonos and top hats, aka a warlock. He eats enough cookies (and nothing else) that he is, optimistically, pre-diabetic. His platonic roommate Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is defined by her love of purple. And his nephew, Young Sheldon, is precocious beyond what is healthy for a child. He quotes dictionary entries for fun. That’s what we’re working with here.
Just as Lewis gets settled into his new living environment, he realizes everything inside his house is magic, he is magic, and the guy who died in the house a year ago (Kyle MacLachlan) made the most powerful and evil magic in the underbelly of the house. Magic, magic, magic.
Horror auteur Eli Roth directs this John Bellairs adaptation, and it is his least auteur-y film to date. A childish romp, his The House with a Clock in Its Walls is half-slapstick, half-nightmare fuel. In one moment, sentient demon pumpkins vomit pumpkin guts on Jack Black’s face. Blanchett headbutts one of the pumpkins with an exclamatory “I hate pumpkins.” In another moment, dead-eyed sentient demon dolls slowly encroach on our heroes from all sides. “So creepy,” Black agrees, and all I can picture is a child crying in fear.
For a thin sweet spot age bracket, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a perfect soft horror picture. I’m thinking 8-10, but even that may be too old. Get too old and kids are cooler than barfing pumpkins and an armchair that is also a dog. Too young, and the mise-en-scene of creepy baby faces is perhaps too much.
For any age demo, it is all a bit too vacant. At a certain point, even the house is too empty for all of the magic that is bouncing around. But most of it is in the characters. Black’s and Blanchett’s charisma is a soft substitute for characters with life to them, and it is barely enough. Both have characters with histories that directly relate to the themes of family and grief, but these histories are only touched on in passing.
Lewis, meanwhile, constantly reminds us of his family tragedy. Vaccaro is asked to do the bulk of the nuanced acting, and that is a lot to ask of a kid. Especially when he is acting alongside an Oscar winner.
Roth and the puppet team add a visual inventiveness to the magically animated inanimate objects of the house. The mise-en-scene is far and away the best aspect of the film. From a scripting standpoint, however, the house doesn’t have a distinct personality. The sentient objects meant to hold sway in the child’s life are more like innocuous pets than part of a larger, lively structure.
Regardless, once the presence of the dead former tenant returns to the film, all of the energy in the house fades. Perhaps it is due to the villains being themselves lifeless, or merely because the script forgets about the wonderment of magic once it is weaponized as a climactic tool. Either way, the climax is inert.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an entirely adequate horror-fantasy adventure for children. It is not quite the awe-inspiring piece that it might think it is. It is not likely to jump-start a child’s imagination through its whimsical depiction of magic (a film like A Wrinkle in Time may be better equipped to do that). All the same, it is not as clumsy an attempt as the trailers suggested. The beating heart at the core of this film may be mechanical like the eponymous clock, but at least something is beating.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)