With Halloween approaching, there will soon be more than enough teen slasher flicks on the silver screen. Although seemingly released about a month too soon, “The House with a Clock in its Walls” is a family-friendly haunt with all the funhouse clichés we know and love, and then some. It’s strange and creepy, but mostly fun.
Jack Black is a curious actor, but truly remarkable when he finds a quirky role where he can raise his freak flag. As Jonathan Barnavelt, he owns a mysterious home resembling Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. When his sister is killed in a car accident, her only son Lewis (Owen Vacarro), is sent to live with him. We quickly learn that Uncle Jonathan is kind of like “Uncle Buck” with issues.
Jonathan welcomes Lewis, “You’ll see, things are quite different here.” There’s a clock in the walls. We don’t know what it does, except something horrible.” He asks Lewis, “You know what a warlock is?” Lewis quickly responds, “A boy witch.” Jonathan explains, “It’s a whole lot more than that.” Lewis will soon enter the world of magic and sorcery. “I’ll give you the right books, teach you the right spells, but the last one percent, that’s up to you.”
Based on the 1973 novel by John Bellairs, the storyline seems written for the “Goosebumps” audience while the production, lighting and kid-appeal have a Spielberg level of quality and design. There are the requisite anthropomorphic chairs, creatures jumping out of closets and secret spells. Jonathan tells Lewis, “The house likes you.”
Assisted by his bickering neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett), the two will usher Lewis into a whole new world. When Florence asks Jonathan if he told Lewis everything, Jonathan admits, “We’re going to do the responsible thing and lie to the kid.” Meanwhile, as the nerdy Lewis attempts to fit in at school, his new friend asks, “You live in The Slaughterhouse? Rumor has it somebody was murdered there.”
Lewis learns of an evil wizard named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) trying to cause the Apocalypse with a magical doomsday clock hidden in Uncle Jonathan’s house. Filled with fantasy and horror, Lewis, Jonathan and Florence must find the clock before it’s too late, even while being slimed by animated jack-o-lanterns.
This is Director Eli Roth’s (“Death Wish”) first adaptation of a literary work, first Gothic work and first family film (not rated R). For not knowing the genre, he seems to know the audience very well indeed. Jumping in with both feet, he even cameos in one scene while his ex-wife, Lorenza Izzo, plays Lewis’ mother.
The story was previously made into a television episode of “CBS Library” (1979). It was based on a real-life mansion in the author’s hometown of Marshall, Michigan. As an industry inside joke, the marquee of the local theater displays “Space Man from Pluto,” which was the title studios executives wanted for a movie that its director (Steven Spielberg) insisted on calling “Back to the Future” (1985).
Black and Blanchet are delightful as quarreling neighbors, tossing one-line zingers at each other throughout the feature. In one scene, Black is whistling Bach, from his rock group, Tenacious D, but mostly, this creepy house just seems to be his natural element.
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is a long 105 minutes and rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, action, scary images, rude humor and language. The movie is spooky enough to entertain most children, but a little too intense for small fry. The second act is a little slow but balances its creepiness with humor and quirkiness.
It’s refreshing to see quality movies aimed at pre-teens as its primary target. It keeps its more demented instincts at bay but does address the serious issues abandonment, grieving and fitting in, even if only superficially. Kyle MacLachlan’s role of the undead might have been more meaningful, but we guess his heart wasn’t in it.
Ron’s Rating: C+
Leigh’s Rating: C