The first in a series of books by John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in Its Walls makes its big-screen debut in a charming and well-done adaptation by director Eli Roth.
The story begins in New Zebedee, Michigan, in 1955 as a bus rolls into town with 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) on board. He is met by his new guardian, his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), clad in a kimono.
His uncle’s home is a gothic masterpiece, both outside and in. It is filled with clocks ticking away. Lewis meets Jonathan’s neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who has a propensity for wearing purple and baking cookies.
Lewis is awakened in the night by the sound of loud rumblings in the walls. He goes out to find his uncle wandering around trying to locate the source of the sound. Lewis also is visited in a dream by his mother (Lorenza Izzo), who tells him that he needs to find the book and the key.
It does not take long for Lewis to find out that his uncle is a warlock and that Florence is a witch who now has difficulty casting spells. Lewis is given books to study but is told never to enter a locked cabinet.
Lewis also is told about the history of the house, which once was owned by Jonathan’s mentor, Isaac Izard (Kyle McLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Isaac died performing a spell. He implanted a clock in the walls of the house that occasionally gongs, with fewer gongs each time. No one is quite sure what will happen when it gongs the last time.
At school, Lewis has a hard time as the new kid. This is not helped by the fact that he wears goggles atop his head in an homage to the Captain Midnight show. He is befriended by Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic). Lewis invites Tarby over to his house and Tarby unlocks the forbidden cabinet. Inside is a book on necromancy, communicating with and raising the dead.
When Tarby is elected class president, he drops Lewis as a friend to associate with the cool kids. In an attempt to get Tarby to like him, Lewis announces that he can perform magic and invites Tarby to the cemetery for a demonstration. There, Lewis unwittingly raises the one person who could destroy the world.
The book, published in 1973, was illustrated by Edward Gorey. The film’s production design hews closely to this gothic Victorian template. The house, with its many rooms and long hallways, is filled with mysterious objects, such as grotesque and creepy mannequins, the requisite knight in a suit of armor and a stained glass window that changes from time to time. A pet chair and a topiary griffin with litter-box issues add a fun touch to the otherwise grim setting.
The film also does a great job with the costumes of the school children in evoking the era of the 1950’s. The hair-styling is also spot-on.
Roth, who has directed gorier fare in such films as “Hostel,” here captures the perfect tone between horror, humor, and wonder. The movie has as much a sense of adventure as it does frights.
The film excels at depicting the marvel of the world of magic and what it means to a young boy. There is a lovely night scene in the garden which embodies how the mystical arts can bring out the beauty in life.
The scares tend to be more visual, such as the appearance of a giant snake or a demon, and startling than ongoing in a persistently frightening way. There often is as much humor as there is creepiness, as in a fight with some creepy jack-o-lanterns.
There are some flaws in the plot. Why is it necessary for Lewis to perform necromancy to impress Tarby when Lewis already can perform simple magic such as making his bed? But this flaw at least moved the plot forward.
Jack Black can be a challenge as an actor in that, like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, he can easily go over the top as he chews scenery. This role also is not too different from the one he portrayed in the exceedingly mediocre Goosebumps.
Nevertheless, here, while he has a few moments of overacting, he is more restrained in general. His chemistry with Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro is excellent. Cate Blanchett does a masterful job as her character evolves over the course of the film. At first she is more a quirky presence. As her backstory is revealed, she becomes a sadder, more damaged figure. In some ways, she reminded me of Julie Walters as Molly Weasley.
Owen Vaccaro gives a winning, believable characterization of a boy suffering from the loss of his parents and trying to fit into his new surroundings. His performance is on a par with Black and Blanchett as he holds his own and then some in their scenes together.
The movie is probably too scary and involved for very young children but should appeal to tweens. It has enough interest and laughs to be enjoyed by adults too. There is some scatological humor. I do not remember any profanity but if there is any, it must certainly be minimal.
I do not think that you could have asked for a more brilliant and faithful adaptation of this novel from book to screen. Kudos to Eli Roth and his team for bringing this classic to life. Four out of 5 stars.
Ten-year-old Lewis goes to live with his oddball uncle in a creaky old house that contains a mysterious ticktock noise. He soon learns that Uncle Jonathan and his feisty neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, are powerful practitioners of the magic arts. When Lewis accidentally awakens the dead, the town’s sleepy facade suddenly springs to life — revealing a secret and dangerous world of witches, warlocks and deadly curses.
CAST: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic and Kyle MacLachlan
DIRECTED BY: Eli Roth
WRITTEN BY: Eric Kripke
BASED ON THE NOVEL BY: John Bellairs