Friday, Sept 21st saw the release of the Eli Roth-helmed film The House with a Clock in its Walls, based on the 1973 novel of the same name by John Bellairs. The film’s screenplay was written by Eric Kripke, who has created such shows such as Supernatural and Timeless.
The film follows young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), an orphan who goes to live with his estranged uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan after his parents are killed in a car accident. There, he meets Jonathan’s friend and next-door neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), and learns that both of them practice magic and Lewis begs them to teach him how. Together the trio must work together to defeat the powerful warlock Issac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who have hidden a clock inside the walls of the house that could spell doom for the world.
With a central message of embracing your weirdness and finding your inner strength,The House with a Clock in its Walls is a fun, at times heart-wrenching and dark, film perfect for the Halloween season. The trailer simply does not do the film justice.
One of the best parts of the film is the cast. Black and Blanchett are terrific together, with their quips and barbs at each other well timed to convince you they’d been friends for ages. They work well in harmony together as Lewis’ mentors, offering him guidance and showing him what is possible while also reminding him of his own worth.
Black gives a well rounded and restrained performance as Jonathan, choosing instead to deliver emotional intensity over physical like his other films. His scenes with Vaccaro are heartwarming and sentimental, much like the ones we see in the Harry Potter films between Harry and his godfather Sirius Black. All Jonathan wants to do is keep young Lewis safe and mentor him in the art of magic, and Black delivers that fear of a parent so well.
Blanchett, true to form, is spectacular in the film, and becomes a sort of mother figure to Lewis, encouraging him when he feels lost. Watching Florence Zimmerman grow over the course of the film was a delight and Blanchett gives her a simultaneously sharp and soft edge to her, and delivers her own emotional intensity to some very heavy scenes in the middle of the film, driving home the importance of found family (a lesson Eric Kripke would later center his television series Supernatural on).
The film embraces the book’s 50s aesthetic, from the costume design, to the sets, to the props and the music chosen for the scenes. The eponymous house is exquisitely designed to both enthrall and unsettle the viewer, with furniture that moves, stained glass windows that change scenes, and mechanical mannequins that creep you out. The decor even plays into the plot, with the books in Jonathan’s study, the clocks on every surface and even the drawings on the walls of Lewis’ bedroom. The set is beautiful and well worth a second (or even third) viewing just to take in all the details put into it.
The plot does not take long to ramp up, the film well utilizing every minute of its 102-minute run time. Even the scenes of young Lewis struggling to fit in at his new school and his subsequent friendship with young Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic) dovetail nicely into the main plot. The story also manages to keep a delicate balance of wonder, suspense, action and whimsy, and finds a way to convey foreboding without relying on too many jump-scares, making it a bit more of a kid/family-friendly film. However, while it is considered a family-friendly fantasy film, the story and action pull no punches, and do their best to avoid the pitfalls of other fantasy film adaptations (looking at you, The Golden Compass). The film embraces its dark themes and believes in its audience’s ability to handle those themes and stick with our heroes to the very end.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is well worth the price of admission, and is a film clearly made with love and respect to its source material. If you’re looking for a fun, suspenseful film with a lot of heart this fall, this is one you’ll want to see in theaters.