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The House with a Clock in Its Walls Movie Review

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018) movie poster The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Theatrical Release: September 21, 2018 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Eli Roth / Writers: John Bellairs (novel); Eric Kripke (screenplay)

Cast: Jack Black (Jonathan Barnavelt), Cate Blanchett (Florence Zimmerman), Owen Vaccaro (Lewis Barnavelt), Kyle MacLachlan (Isaac Izard), Renιe Elise Goldsberry (Selena Izard), Colleen Camp (Mrs. Hanchett), Sunny Suljic (Tarby Corrigan), Lorenza Izzo (Mother), Braxton Bjerken (Woody Mingo), Vanessa Anne Williams (Rose Rita Pottinger)

 

The House with a Clock in Its Walls spells out its principal location and sort of its plot in its title.
Adapted from John Bellairs' 1973 junior novel of the same name, this family-oriented horror fantasy arrives in time for Halloween season as the first movie directed by Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever) that isn't rated R.

It's 1955 and newly-orphaned 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) has just taken a bus ride from Minneapolis to New Zebedee, Michigan, where he is to live as a ward of his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). In his large, ominous mansion, Jonathan lives life his own way, practicing saxophone at 3 AM and encouraging cookies for dinner. It isn't long where we get something of an explanation for Jonathan's unstructured life. He confides in his dictionary-toting nephew that he is actually a warlock. His strangely close but platonic neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a witch.

Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black) uses a stethoscope to listen to the clock inside the walls of his house in "The House with a Clock in Its Walls."

The two magical middle agers are troubled by a spell that has been cast on the house by Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), Jonathan's mentor who passed away a year ago. Apparently, besides the many clocks on display in the house, there is one hidden within the walls that has been counting down and presumably to some significant doom. Jonathan and Florence let young Lewis, who wears goggles on his head like his television hero and is an outcast at school, to their world of sorcery.

Unfortunately, to impress a friend turned bully at school (Sunny Suljic, star of Jonah Hill's upcoming Mid90s), Lewis kind of raises someone from the dead. And not just anyone, but someone who can and wishes to bring about the end of humanity and start all over again.

In the tradition of movies like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Hocus Pocus, and Black's own Goosebumps, House directs its thrills at the young while hoping not to leave adults cold. It has moderate success on both fronts. Roth is out of his element, but he's more than qualified to try his hand at live-action family filmmaking, a class largely frequented by repeat offenders. Respected by genre fans but almost never a commercial draw, Roth lets others put as much of an imprint on this as any signature touch you might struggle to find.

Young wordphile Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) teams up with gifted neighbor witch Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) and his warlock uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) to stave off an undead rival warlock.

For much of the runtime, House coasts on the dialed-up charisma of Jack Black. Uncle Jonathan talks like it's 2018 and his humor should appeal to those who like Black from movies like last year's Jumanji sequel, School of Rock, and the aforementioned Goosebumps (whose sequel he seems to have passed on in favor of this). Lending some class and more of a period feel is Blanchett, who is completely comfortable with the material despite being a two-time Oscar winner. Given as much screentime as either of the top-billed leads, Vaccaro (of the Daddy's Home franchise) bears some resemblance to Jacob Tremblay of Room, Wonder, and current multiplex sharer The Predator, but he's nowhere near the same league as his fellow pre-teen in terms of acting and House suffers a bit for it.

Even so, this remains passable entertainment. There's a bit more bathroom humor than expected and needed. The decision to set this in an alternate 1955 where racism doesn't exist is kind of curious. And for bearing the Amblin Entertainment label (even if its iconic founder Steven Spielberg is not credited), this is not the rollicking, nostalgia-fueling, scary-for-kids fun that productions like Gremlins, Arachnophobia, and Monster House have been.
But it never drifts into this-is-bad camp territory, even when it's relying on head-scratching devices like a gryffin that randomly poops on people and an adult Jack Black head on a baby's body. There are just enough decent ideas in the screenplay by Eric Kripke who returns to film after a decade in television, where he is most known for creating the interminable CW series "Supernatural."

House is probably not something that will set the box office ablaze or be remembered much longer than the weekend in which it is expected to open in first place, but it is a benign diversion that could very well fill in a gap in the family offerings calendar, at least for the three weeks until Goosebumps 2 arrives sans Black. Frankly, the best argument for seeing the film might be the fact that in certain first-week IMAX 3D engagements it is prefaced by Michael Jackson's 1983 "Thriller" music video in IMAX 3D, which seems like a fairly genius marketing ploy. Sadly, my screening offered no such delight.

Related Reviews:
Jack Black: Goosebumps • Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle | Cate Blanchett: Cinderella (2015)
Hocus Pocus • A Wrinkle in Time • Bridge to Terabithia • Don't Be Afraid of the Dark • Wonderstruck • Beautiful Creatures
Now in Theaters: The Nun • The Predator • Alpha • Searching • Life Itself • The Little Stranger • Kin

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Reviewed September 20, 2018.



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