The House With a Clock in Its Walls (Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: When a young orphan named Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his warlock uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), the boy learns how to conduct magic spells that could very well save the world from a doomsday scenario.

REVIEW: Believe it or not, in THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS, Eli Roth has made the best Tim Burton movie in years. Granted, it’s been a circuitous route for Roth to get here, what with meandering from horror wunderkind after CABIN FEVER in 2003, maturing into a bona fide hit-man with the low-budget-high-yield HOSTEL pictures, only to lose his footing a bit with KNOCK KNOCK and DEATH WISH in recent years. Now possibly resigned to his fate as a journeyman studio director, it’s no insult to say Roth has certainly softened over the years, as he’s not only turned in his first non-R-rated movie, but with a delightful romp of a fun Halloween-time family film, he’s given us his most outright enjoyable movie to date. Or, certainly since his first. The reasons for this are many, but of most import include the well-written screenplay by Supernatural scribe Eric Kripke, adapted from the equally fecund source novel by John Bellairs, the electric chemistry among the three principal leads, and the macabre nature of the titular manse itself. Effervescent if ultimately evanescent (that's for you, Lew), here’s a HOUSE most definitely worth approaching this Halloween!

1955. Lewis Barnavelt is a young dictionary-toting wordsmith whose parents just died, and as a result, is sent to live with his estranged uncle, Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan. As soon as he meets his uncle and notices how wacky he is, donning kimonos and constantly cracking wise, Lewis is mortified by the old moldering abode he’s taken to. The place is littered with clocks of all sizes and stripes, Doc Brown style (it is 1955), clicking away ad nauseam. Lewis meets Florence Zimmerman, the purple-adorned assistant of Jonathan’s who lives next door. Jonathan and Florence trade banterous barbs back and forth throughout the film, constantly revealing what tremendous onscreen rapport Black and Blanchett have with one another. This is one of the undoubted strengths of the film, these two actors, not just in their droll argumentative salvos, but in their overall quality of acting. We know Blanchett has a pair of Oscars, but I’m continuously impressed by Black, who’s not just constitutionally incapable of being unentertaining, but he’s also a really terrific actor as well. The way he interacts with kids in particular, and has since SCHOOL OF ROCK, KUNG-FU PANDA, GOOSEBUMPS, etc. is of a rare skill and willingness not many others can achieve. Much of the movies enjoyment comes from vicariously experiencing the fun they're having onscreen.

Lewis soon learns his uncle’s a warlock and Florence a witch, and wants to learn how to become one as well. Jonathan reluctantly obliges when he senses the kid can also hear the inveterate ticking of a clock in the walls. It turns out the clock was hidden in the walls by Jonathan’s dead ex-partner, magician Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), so no other witch or warlock could find it. That’s because it’s secretly a doomsday clock, set to activate in alignment with impending lunar eclipse and end make all humans disappear. As Lewis learns his share of curses and hexes, he gets in too deep by showing a popular kid in school, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), one of Jonathan’s most dangerous spell-books. As Lewis inadvertently raises the dead, he must not only contend with a crustily withering zombified Izard, but also the racing doomsday clock, and a horde of malevolently animated furnishing in and outside the titular abode. Oh, and A CHRISTMAS STORY style (Roth nodding to Bob Clark, a horror master who also went family friendly), a pair of Flick goggles and a jar of Ovaltine.

Aside from the splendid turns by the three leads, Vaccaro certainly included, the two strongest assets that stand out in the movies favor are how dexterously written the screenplay is, and how cool and creepy the interior/exterior of the horrifying house appears. Whether it’s the undulating furniture, Gothic festoonery, disturbing doll-room of death that comes alive in the third act, the terrifying topiaries on the back lawn, or the sinister jack-o’-lanterns in the front yard, the movie evokes a wonderfully immersive sensorial ambience of Halloween-time, doing so in a way that makes you feel like a kid again. And the script has so many well thought out early plants that come back to bloom in full in the end, it’s no wonder this guy Kripke has written well over 300 hours of television. And yet, nothing feels contrived, forced, obviously foreshadowed, or badly shoehorned in. Things come around so naturally, so unpredictably, and so organically earned, that you can see why Roth was so compelled to direct the material in the first place. Whether it’s Lewis’ 8-ball, or the nosy neighbor Mrs. Hanchett (Colleen Camp, always a favorite), the script’s sinuous structure will keep even the adult viewers on edge. Perhaps most appreciable, there isn’t an ounce of typical PG schmaltz or mawkish children’s movie resolution.

Gripes and grouses for a movie like this start with just how light, breezy, and ultimately fleeting it is. Like empty calories, it’s enjoyable while you’re consuming it, but not bound to stick with you much after it’s over. Or for very long. This is admittedly a small problem, and nothing of the movies fault per se, but there is a kind of fun-if-forgettable quality about the whole thing that does differ from say the darker, heavier fare of peak Burton. But between this and an over-reliance on tasteless toilet-humor and gross barf-out gags, surely meant to induce a chuckle from the kiddies, there really isn’t much to get upset about. THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is an amusingly spooky Halloween-time family film that not only faithfully adapts a compelling and well-written story, not only boasts three magnificent performances and a menacing milieu, but perhaps most impressive of all, shows us a versatile side of Eli Roth fans of his should encourage to see more of. Clock it!


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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie.