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

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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