With his adaptation of John Bellairs' The House with a Clock in Its Walls, veteran horror filmmaker Eli Roth ventures into family-friendly fantasy territory, delivering up his most confidently helmed and all-around entertaining project to date (albeit comparing his latest to his previous films does seem a bit odd). Anchored by a trio of outstanding performances from Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, and Owen Vaccaro, The House with a Clock in Its Walls conjures up a bevy of kid-appropriate frights and has the good sense to cast Kyle MacLachlan as its villain to boot, making for a delightful kickoff to the Halloween season for all the pint-sized fans out there.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls follows a 10-year-old orphan named Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccaro), who is invited to go live with his estranged uncle Jonathan (Black) after a tragic accident claims his parents, and he comes to realize that not only is his new guardian a warlock, but that his new home has a bit of magic to it as well. Jonathan has been tasked with taking care of the magical abode, with the help of his neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett), after the previous resident Isaac Izard and his wife, Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry), succumbed to the temptations of the dark arts. Before the Izards’ lives were cut short, the couple unleashed an endlessly ticking clock inside the walls of the home—their way of endlessly torturing Jonathan even from the beyond. As Lewis settles into his new magical life, a threat looms over the mysterious house, one that could forever change the course of history as we know it, leaving the youngster and his new family to try and save the world from being completely wiped from existence.
While it has been decades since I first read the book version of The House with a Clock in Its Walls (and a few other installments in the literary series), I must say that once Roth’s adaptation began, I was immediately swept right into this world all over again, and felt like I was a 10-year-old rediscovering an old friend. The fact that Amblin Entertainment is involved with this adaptation feels like an ideal situation, as Roth’s work in the film feels perfectly at home with some of the notable fantastical movies that helped cement the production shingle’s legacy throughout the 1980s—films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, Gremlins, Casper, and even Monster House immediately came to mind when I was watching their newest production. This might be a weird comparison to make, but the finale for The House with a Clock in Its Walls also gave me The Frighteners vibes, and that just tickled my proverbial fancy.
To some, it might seem a bit unusual that Roth is at the helm of a PG-rated family movie, especially considering how hard-edged so many of his horror films have been throughout his career, but The House with a Clock in Its Walls really allows him to let his proverbial hair down, as Roth’s unbridled enthusiasm for this material is palpable from start to finish. Both Black and Blanchett are excellent together here, too, as much of their relationship involves trading acerbic barbs and playful banter, and I just want to watch 100 movies of the two of them living together, endlessly going back and forth with each other. They’re great. Vaccaro’s performance as Lewis is the emotional glue holding The House with a Clock in Its Walls together, providing the film with a lot of heart as we watch this unassuming kid find his own inner strength the more he embraces the quirkiness of his existence, especially now that he’s training as a warlock apprentice under the tutelage of his uncle Jonathan.
On a technical level, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is incredibly well-crafted, with everything from the lavish production design by Jon Hutman to the brilliant visual effects that bring to life a vivacious topiary, a sassy chair, and countless other creatures, as well as the whimsical score from composer Nathan Barr complements the material and performances so beautifully. There’s about 15 minutes in the middle of The House with a Clock in Its Walls where the film’s momentum dips a bit, but as a whole, the whole affair is utterly charming, and I had a lot of fun with Roth’s first foray into kid-centric genre fare. Plus, there’s a moment in this where Cate Blanchett actually head-butts a pumpkin, and I had no idea just how badly I needed that imagery in my life until now.
Movie Score: 4/5