Review: The House with a Clock in its Walls

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: A young orphan taken in by his strange uncle discovers that there is magic in his family. As the boy’s power grows he mistakenly brings back an evil magician from the dead, one that is intent on causing end of the world havoc for the human race. It is up to the boy, his uncle and their friendly neighbor to stop the maniacal wizard.

REVIEW: Eli Roth has created some insane imagery with his gruesome features including HOSTEL and CABIN FEVER. However, his latest big screen attraction is something quite new for the filmmaker. Sure, you’ll find numerous spooky images and a haunted house theme, but it is also a heartwarming family adventure. THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is an oftentimes delightful fantasy that is made by somebody who understands genre. The scary elements work, even if there is not a single chance that you’ll find his trademark gore, nudity or crude humor.  This is an imaginative tale that is able to offer a dark and foreboding sense of loss, as well as a little magic with a celebration of all that is weird and wonderful.

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Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is a lonely young boy who has recently lost his parents. Complete with a set of steampunk goggles from his favorite show, Lewis is sent to live with his oddball Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Once he arrives, he comes to the realization that the house isn’t your typical home away from home. With stained glass windows that seem to create moving pictures and hundreds of clocks on the premise, the young boy finds that his uncle is more than just a kooky guy living in a creepy home. Jonathan, along with his neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) happen to have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to special powers. Yet, after an old enemy named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) is brought back from the dead, Lewis, Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman must fight with every bit of power they have so they can stop him from bringing death to the human race. See, it still gets dark.

Like most great children’s scary stories, there is a very wicked sense of dread hidden inside. And no, it’s not just the obnoxious ticking clock, there is a bit more than that to be discovered. The script by Eric Kripke – based on the book by John Bellairs – brings on the magic rather quickly and it presents the material in an engaging fashion. It’s easy to sympathize with Lewis and follow on his creepy journey, even if the minor mysteries presented won’t surprise most – but it certainly has a very good time getting there. However, this may be a bit too scary for very young children due to a couple of icky sequences and a rather frightening looking villain. Yet the few younger viewers in the audience during my screening seemed to enjoy the the Nickelodeon style gore – not gruesome but perhaps yucky. Have you ever seen that one neighbor that makes his Halloween jack-o-lantern look like it’s vomiting out its innards? Well now you have an idea of what goes on at one point here.

One of the most entertaining aspects of this spooky adventure is the cast. Jack Black is perfectly suited for this kind of film as we’ve seen in the big screen adaptation of GOOSEBUMPS, and he may be even better here. And then there is Cate. The lovely Ms. Blanchett is perfection as the mysterious neighbor who shares a warm and platonic relationship with Jonathan. The two actors are so good together that it is a joy to watch their silly games of insulting each other in a playful way. The two work beautifully with Owen Vaccaro, and they create a very sweetly unique family unit. As well, Kyle McLachlan gives yet another outrageous performance as Isaac Izard – a warlock who isn’t quite a kind as Jonathan. The cast also includes Lorenzo Izzo, Sunny Suljic, Alli Beckman, and Mr. Roth has the smarts to bring on the legendary character actress Colleen Camp as an extremely nosy neighbor.

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There is much to enjoy in Roth’s very first try at a family film. With shades of BEETLEJUICE, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and perhaps even the underrated THE FRIGHTENERS from Peter Jackson, this is one of the directors finest films. As a visual experience, the set design and the house itself add much of the charm. One issue is that some of the visual effects aren’t terribly effective. Then again, he isn’t making a gross out horror flick this time, so perhaps the “man baby” and the “pumpkin monsters” are made to be a little goofy in order to not horrify the intended audience. How strange it feels to say that Eli Roth made a very entertaining movie that you can bring the whole family to without hiring a babysitter.

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is an engaging blend of horror, comedy and fantasy meant for the entire family. At times the scares may get slightly dark for some, but it is such a colorful and entertaining fantasy feature that most young audiences will probably embrace it. Watching the banter between Jack Black and Cate Blanchett is enjoyable, and young Owen Vaccaro is pretty good as the lonely young boy who falls under the spell of all the magic on display. This is the kind of feature that offers a safe and fun way to introduce young audiences to genre while still offering something clever to already initiated horror lovers. And since it is soaked in Halloween imagery – similarly to the recent holiday surprises PARANORMAN and KRAMPUS – we have ourselves a new movie to add on to our October holiday viewing plans.


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JimmyO is one of’s longest-tenured writers, with him reviewing movies and interviewing celebrities since 2007 as the site’s Los Angeles correspondent.