The House with a Clock in Its Walls movie review: good witches and not-so-good witches

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The House with a Clock in Its Walls green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Charming entry-level spookiness and nicely old-fashioned eeriness for budding fright fans. A disarmingly goofy Jack Black and a vamping-it-up Cate Blanchett meet in a comic middle that is perfectly pitched.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Cate Blanchett; love a good fantasy
I’m “biast” (con): hot and cold (mostly cold) on Jack Black
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Wait, the house with a what? With a clock in its walls? Don’t most houses have clocks in the walls? Okay, maybe on their walls, but still… a house with a clock in its walls doesn’t sound terribly weird or frightening or anything that The House with a Clock in Its Walls would appear from the outside that it wants to be. But this movie is based on the acclaimed-at-the-time 1973 young-adult novel by John Bellairs, and it’s very plain that someone in Hollywood demanded, “Get me the next Harry Potter!” so probably Hollywood figured that retaining the name of the book was a good idea. On the other hand, I — as dorky and bookish and in love with all things weird as a child (and still) as House protagonist Lewis Barnavelt — would have been the prime grade-schooler audience for this book in the late 70s and early 80s, right when the book was new and fresh in its acclaim, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. I would have sucked this book right out of the kiddie section at the library when I was eight years old and possibly might have considered never returning if I were the sort of bad girl who’d do that. But that didn’t happen. So what sort of name recognition does this series — which *checks Wikipedia* runs to 12 books — have, anyway?

Cate Blanchett as a witch is not only a new aesthetic but a new sexuality.
Cate Blanchett as a witch is not only a new aesthetic but a new sexuality.

Now, obviously, my subjective experience of the novel is not an objective determination of how popular this series may be. So please don’t write in to tell me that you/your niece/your odd little cousin/your rugrat loved/loves these books. I get that there will be lots of people to whom that applies. But it’s still not like there’s enormous name recognition for The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it also kinda fails as movie marketing. It’s not an evocative title. A name change might have been a good idea.

And I say that because dang if an order to find the next Harry Potter for movies didn’t pretty much succeed, because this charming little flick offers genuinely appropriate entry-level spookiness for budding fright fans and plenty of pleasingly fun Halloweeny scares. If you want to get a kid into horror without freaking them out too much, this would be a good movie to show them. If you’ve got a kid who loves Harry Potter and craves more, this is it. I fear the blah title will put people off, and it shouldn’t, because we really do need more good movies for kids these days. There are so few.

Someone in Hollywood demanded, “Get me the next Harry Potter!” and dang if they didn’t get pretty close.

Anyway, in the grand tradition of these sorts of stories (including Harry Potter), 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro: Daddy’s Home 2, Fun Mom Dinner) is an orphan, has newly lost his parents, and so he is shuffled off to live with the, um, unconventional uncle he has never even met before. We are introduced to Lewis as he arrives by bus in 1950s Michigan — not by time travel or anything, though that would have been even cooler; that’s just when this is set, in a vaguely faux, extremely retro funky midcentury — for his very first encounter with Jonathan Barnavelt, who is Jack Black (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, The D Train) at his most disarmingly goofy (this is rare). Uncle Jonathan lives in a haunted house, and has the most amazing neighbor/best friend in Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett: Ocean’s Eight, Thor: Ragnarok), a good witch who lives next door. And it turns out that Jonathan is himself a warlock! “Are you a good warlock or not?” Lewis wants to know, and by this he means “Are you nice or evil?” Jonathan’s response of “Well, not that good” is a reply to the smarter question of “Are you talented?” Jonathan is Jack Black–ishly rather inept. Because of course he is. (If you’re thinking this is reminding you of the terrible 2015’s Goosebumps movie, which also featured Black as the silly-eldritch center of ooky horrors… this is much better. Much.)

Gentle humor of this sort is what House sings with. And also a mild uncanniness and a good-natured subversion. This is a stepping-stone to counterculture notions of alt-fantasy — Lewis’s world is just the teensiest bit steampunk; he favors goggles, which I approve of — and to living your best life even if that means you’re gonna be an outcast eccentric. If there’s one overarching theme here, it’s “Embrace your weirdness,” which Lewis is invited to do — and does! — via his new life with his uncle and his uncle’s delightfully strange friends. And Lewis makes his own strange new friends! House is sadly lacking in feminine energy — even the mad power of Cate Blanchett cannot pull that off on its own — but at least Lewis has a new pal at school, Rose Rita Pottinger (Vanessa Anne Williams), who is very sweetly peculiar and who has an inordinate fondness for insects. She doesn’t have a large part to play here, but if there’s a sequel — which I would be very happy to see, even though I typically feel that sequels are generally uncalled for — she could play a larger role. She can make weird little girls feel seen in a way that we– er, they don’t often get.

You don’t need steampunk goggles to appreciate the animated stained-glass window, but you’ll look cooler while doing so.
You don’t need steampunk goggles to appreciate the animated stained-glass window, but you’ll look cooler while doing so.

Perhaps the most sublime aspect of The House with a Clock in Its Walls — the title refers to another warlock, a very bad-as-in-evil one, who literally put a doomsday-counting-down clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house — is the fact that it is directed by Eli Roth. Horror schlockmeister Eli Roth, he of the appalling Hostel movies, and other downright sociopathic gorefests like The Green Inferno, movies that are about the worst that humanity can do to itself. House is — surprisingly, once you know who directed it — about good human impulses. Roth here hits an unexpected (from him) sweet spot between cloying and spooky, one that finds joy and acceptance for an oddball child in magic and mystery. I’m most definitely not a fan of crude humor and grossouts, especially aimed at children, whom we adults are meant to be training away from finding all things potty hilarious, but even I have to concede that there are some grossouts here that are clever and fresh: I mean, jack-o’-lantern vomit! That’s funny stuff. And Roth manages to blend some deeply unsettling (though still only PG-creepy) imagery with nicely old-fashioned eerie: foggy cemeteries, esoteric books.

Roth crams a lot of stuff into this movie — the production design alone is bulging with giddy opulence — but somehow it all works together, particularly thanks to the terrific cast: while Blanchett vamps it up deliciously, Black tones down his mania, and they meet in a comic middle that is perfectly pitched. (The kid is much better than many child actors, too.) Somehow, probably in spite of itself, The House with a Clock in Its Walls ends up totally enchanting.

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Jim Mann
Jim Mann
Tue, Sep 18, 2018 5:47pm

The book is quite good. John Bellairs is great at moving from scenes that are light and a bit funny to ones that are genuinely chilling. Much of what he wrote, including The House With a Clock in Its Walls — was for Young Adults, though he also wrote several “adult” fantasies, including the marvelous The Face in the Frost (one of the great underrated and almost unknown fantasy novels). I’m looking forward to seeing this over the weekend.

reply to  Jim Mann
Wed, Sep 19, 2018 12:56am

That *is* a good story! I didn’t know it was almost unknown.

JIm Mann
JIm Mann
reply to  Jim Mann
Wed, Sep 26, 2018 3:12pm

I liked it quite a bit though I thought the final act suffered a bit from “we have special effects budget left over so let’s throw more effects into the climax.”

Tue, Sep 18, 2018 6:06pm

Unrelated, but just out of curiosity, do you usually write your “I’m ‘biast’ (pro)” and “’biast’ (con)” notes before or after seeing a movie?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Kelvin
Wed, Sep 19, 2018 11:55am

My biast indications are about the expectations I bring with me into a movie before I see it. So they’re never about my reaction to the film afterward.

Tue, Sep 18, 2018 7:04pm

This sounds okay and I approve of films with weird children and of course Cate Blanchard is glorious. I do find myself wishing that someone had done a better job with The Dark is Rising though because that series could be more than equal to Harry Potter. Ah well, still have new Doctor Who to look forward to soon.

reply to  ketac6
Wed, Sep 19, 2018 12:56am

Yeah, Dark Is Rising could have been SO much better.

Wed, Sep 19, 2018 12:55am

This is good news. I wasn’t impressed by the trailer and am not fond of Jack Black.

I did like the book quite a bit tho’, when I was little. I seem to remember liking one of the sequals more though, The Letter The Witcher and the Ring, if I remember correctly. There was a plot point about having a spell to hurt someone which included having water dripping on a photograph to wear away the emulsion. Something about that was very disturbing to me.

reply to  LaSargenta
Wed, Sep 19, 2018 5:33pm

Yes! The Letter The Witch and the Ring! Let’s hope House does well, and the sequels go ahead, because The Letter The Witch and the Ring is entirely about Mrs. Zimmerman and Rose Rita on a summer vacation without Lewis and Jonathan – very few male characters if any.

And yes, ever since I read that trick about leaving a photograph under dripping water, I’ve kept it in mind just in case I wind up with an enemy I feel strongly enough about to do that to.

Mon, Oct 29, 2018 7:50pm

I would not categorize A House with a Clock in its Walls as YA, though I can see the confusion. It’s better categorized as “upper elementary/middle grade” which is precisely the section you find in it at the library or Burns and Ignoble, for example (I can say this with some authority, since I’m a high school librarian). And I’d never heard of it either, which is sad and weird, because I, too, would have been exactly the kind of kid who would have read that book! You should check the book out because it features illustrations by Edward Gorey which are just wonderful (as all Gorey illustrations are). I actually found that as much as I enjoyed the book, my kids and I both enjoyed the movie more (shock! horror!), because it actually gave some backstory to the characters, particularly Ms. Zimmerman, who is a Holocaust survivor in the movie (there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Blanchett’s arm with a Holocaust tattoo (the Holocaust also seems to be an Eli Roth theme). Also, oddly enough, it deals far better with Lewis’s grief concerning his dead parents than the book did, in my opinion. One of the “bad guys” employs a very cruel psychological trick on Lewis that is not in the book (that I recall) but feels very dark for a kids’ movie. Not that I worry about dark themes in children’s movies–my very favorite movies and books growing up were books with dark and heavy themes (The Last Unicorn, The Neverending Story, etc–I’m an 80s kid, clearly). All the best books aimed at kids (Roald Dahl is an exemplar of this) deal with dark and heavy themes in a way that is age appropriate, but never dumbs it down. This is the magic of Harry Potter, which is very much in the same vein and owes a lot to Roald Dahl and books like this one and Edgar Eager’s Half Magic books, etc. My kids (10 and 7) watched this movie through splayed fingers (my daughter, 7, actually covered her ears at some points) and they LOVED it. Good stuff!