The House with a Clock in Its Walls
If recent history has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. The past few years have been doozies. We’ve seen footage of a live giant squid and the return of Twin Peaks! So if I tell you that Eli Roth has made a movie for kids that’s actually worth your time, believe me. Stranger things have happened.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is based on the first book in a series by John Bellairs. It begins, as many children’s stories do, with the death of parents. Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) loses both his mom and dad to a terrible accident. His estranged uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), sends for him, even though they’ve never met. Try as Jonathan might to hide his true nature behind an eccentric exterior, the truth about him is very soon revealed. He’s a warlock. His best friend and next door neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett), is a powerful witch. Suddenly, the animated stained glass and puppy-like armchair all make sense. Rather than deny Lewis the world of witches and warlocks, Jonathan starts teaching him the ways of magic, and his new-found powers are needed to help defeat the evil hidden within the house itself.
The action of the film is rooted in the fact that all of these characters have histories. Lewis is a kid trying to deal with his parents’ sudden death, and a new school with new kids, and new kid politics. Jonathan is haunted, literally and figuratively, by the house he lives in and the history that brought him there. Even Florence has sadness in her life that holds her and her powers back. All of these struggles make the world of The House with a Clock in Its Walls rich, and offer actual character arcs and motivation. Too often, films for kids skip on building real characters and the stories suffer from it. The characters here each have their own battles, and at no point does one character know the full story of what’s really going on. They’re all allowed some autonomy and they’re all complicated.
Another typical misstep that The House with a Clock in Its Walls avoids is talking down to kids. It shows how adults are often hesitant to be honest with children, especially about the heavier issues they face, but it does so with a critical eye. The overall message is that honesty and communication will only help matters, even magical matters.
Lest you think this all sounds like your typical kids’ movie love-fest, certain hints at director Roth’s evil past bleed through to the surface. This is a Halloween movie, after all! Notably, there’s a room filled with Victorian-looking automatons that gives even Jonathan the heebie-jeebies. That room, along with the yard full of jack-o’-lanterns, is destined to sneak into a nightmare or two for the next decade.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is exactly what it needs to be: charming and creepy. If this is what we get when sensationalized horror directors take a stab at the lighter side of cinema, then let them have at it.
The trailers looked dopey. But the title reminds me of the horse with a clock in its stomach from the “Worry Wart” episode of The Honeymooners—I’ll happily rewatch that!