★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Eli Roth proves that he has a gentler comic touch with his tone-perfect gateway spook-fest The House With a Clock in its Walls, featuring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, and young Owen Vaccaro.
Directed by Eli Roth
Color me curious, and even a bit skeptical when finding out that the torture porn purveyor was going to direct a kid-friendly haunted house movie. It worked! Bolstered by the star power and acting chops of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, this adaptation of the YA book of the same name by author John Bellairs, Roth has delivered a crowd-pleasing and beautifully rendered scary gateway film.
It is 1955, and we are introduced to recently orphaned ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt having to move to New Zebadee, Michigan (which looks a whole lot like Atlanta) to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). All Lewis has is a suitcase and a handy Magic 8 Ball. I looked it up, the 8 Ball was a toy introduced in 1950… a nice touch. Uncle Jonathan’s mansion is as odd and mysterious as he is.
The house is a classic Victorian estate, and is loaded with curiosities. Prominent in the house are dozens of clocks, as well as a suit of armor (why not?) a bunch of automatons and mannequins, an animated sofa chair (quite amusing), a fabulous stained glass window that changes its imagery, and fabulously textured drapes and wall coverings. It is a wild museum of a home, and it feels like a place of magic. Lewis is introduced to Uncle Jonathan’s best friend, Florence, who admonishes that they do not have a “Kissy Face” relationship.
On Lewis’ first night in the creepy mansion, he is woken by a the sound of an unseen clock, and he spies his uncle patrolling the house desperately looking for something hidden. He is also visited upon by the spirit of his late mother, and Lewis confesses that the he is uncomfortable with the new living arrangement, and he does not trust his strange uncle or his friend. His mother comforts him, and then suggests that he find a hidden key and book.
The next morning, Lewis confronts Jonathan and Florence about his concerns, and they confess that they are warlock and witch, and they are searching for the mysterious clock in the walls. Uncle Jonathan invites Lewis to learn magic too, but he implores him one rule… do NOT open the forbidden cabinet. There is dark magic in the world. The house’s previous owners were a sinister warlock named Isaac Izzard and his equally wicked wife Selena, who had hidden a clock within the walls of the house before they died. Jonathan has been trying to find it and discover its purpose, and he enlists Lewis’ help to join their search.
Lewis, though is a boy saddled with being both the new kid in school, and a strange little boy without many friends wants to impress the charismatic boy in his class with his magic, and he succumbs to peer pressure breaks his promise to his Uncle, with dire consequences. The movie enters its threatening mode, a cautionary tale for rule breakers. Those of you familiar with the Harry Potter Tales will find familiar themes explored here, and I’m sure kids will identify with the desire to push boundaries, despite the risks. Once Lewis has unwittingly unleashed the old warlock Izzard’s malevolent plans back into the world, Jonathan, Florence, and Lewis have to rally to stop the cosmic events from happening
Roth shows that he has a deft touch with the personal moments. The interactions between Black and Vaccaro, and Black and Blanchett are charming and endearing. I found myself bursting into laughter on multiple occasions, as the humor in the film, like a Pixar movie, has a deft comic touch… and truth be told, Jack Black can be very hit-or-miss. In this film, he still embodies that wild manic energy, but he pulls back just enough not to be a caricature, and I really enjoyed his performance. Blanchett, as you might expect, is elegant and smooth. Less successful is the introduction of Kyle MacLaughlan’s Izzard, as he is portrayed to be the big bad, but he doesn’t provide as much of a threat to generate much in the way of scares. It doesn’t help that it’s difficult at time to understand what he’s saying.
The production design and set decoration for this movie was fabulous. Credit to the late great production designer John Hutman (Braveheart, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Saving Private Ryan) for the great sets, and set decorator Ellen Brill for providing so much character and flavor to this effort. The house itself is the Candler House, made for the son of the Coca Cola fortune in 1921, and after being used as a discotheque in the 70s, was converted into a bed and breakfast soon after this movie was shot. They had the opportunity to utilize the whole house for the film, both interiors and exteriors, which is a rarity in haunted house movies.
Like all great haunted house movies, the house itself is a character. It expresses itself with the changing stained glass in the foyer (very nicely done) and Uncle Jonathan tells Lewis that “The house likes you.” So, proof that even a haunted house doesn’t have to be an EVIL house, a refreshing take for a gateway film. The playful sofa chair and the digestive challenged manticore topiary (Bad kitty!) are also a nice touch.
I place The House With a Clock in the Walls as one of the best kid-appropriate films of recent vintage. To put things into perspective, here is my quick Dead List of spooky kid-friendly gateway films suitable for kids 8-10 years old:
- The House With a Clock in the Walls
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- A Nightmare Before Christmas
- Monster House
- The Addams Family
- Hotel Transylvania
The House With a Clock in the Walls is currently streaming, but right now it is a Showtime exclusive. It is available on DVD, Blueray, and also can be purchased from Amazon, and give it time, it will be available for rent on the other steaming services before too long. The movie is rated PG and would be suitable for all but the youngest and most impressionable youngsters.