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Jack Black
Jack Black
Universal Pictures
 104 Minutes
Directed by: Eli Roth
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett   
The House with a Clock in Its Walls

As strange as it might seem to some people who classify anything written before the 21st century as “Shakespeare and those other old guys,” authors wrote books with magic-themed plots that were intended for younger audiences before the Harry Potter novels took the literary scene by storm beginning in 1997. Among those “ancient” works were the acclaimed adventures of Lewis Barnavelt, sort of a pre-teen Fox Mulder investigating supernatural phenomena, beginning with The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Now, the audiences in 2018 get a movie version of House with a Clock, thanks in large part to the participation of Jack Black, who’s a natural for this sort of film. While it’s not nearly as good as a Harry Potter film, House with a Clock has its own distinct charms, most notably the presence of the aforementioned Jack Black and co-star Cate Blanchett.


As House with a Clock begins, the year is 1955, and 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), who recently lost his parents in an auto accident, moves in with his only living relative, eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black). Jonathan’s house is quite spooky, with stained glass windows that change images from one day to the next, a mysterious ticking sound from somewhere inside the walls, and an overstuffed armchair that follows him around. Soon, however, Jonathan comes to enjoy living with Uncle Jonathan and his next-door neighbor, equally eccentric Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett). Spooky or not, Jonathan’s house is a more welcoming environment for Lewis than is his new school, where the other kids in his pick on the rather uncoordinated Lewis mercilessly.


Eventually, Lewis learns the big secret of the house. For starters, Jonathan is a warlock and Florence a witch (albeit one whose powers seem to have gone away after having suffered some trauma in the war). The ticking noise is a sort of going-away present from the house’s former owner, evil warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who hid a clock somewhere in those walls before he died. As Lewis eventually learns, that clock is the key to Isaac’s sinister plot which could, in the grandest tradition of evil movie plots, mean the end of civilization as we know it.


Before Lewis learns about the clock, however, Jonathan and Florence begin teaching him the rudiments of magic and spellcasting, which the boy struggles to master. He does, however, make an apparent friend, one of the more popular boys in his class, Tarby (Sunny Suljic). Of course, Lewis is unaware that Tarby is just using Lewis to help get himself elected class president. Once Tarby is voted in and starts giving Lewis the cold shoulder, Lewis tries to keep Tarby’s friendship by demonstrating one of the magic spells he’s learned: how to bring someone, in this case, Isaac, back from the dead. Suffice it to say that this spell backfires on Lewis, and Isaac’s master plan is one step closer to fruition.


Surprisingly, the PG-rated House with a Clock in Its Walls was directed by Eli Roth, better known for his copious gorefests like Hostel. Working from a script by Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural and Timeless, Roth struggles with the supernatural aspects of the story. For a movie aimed at pre-teens, the supernatural elements of the plot are considerably overblown, resulting in some rather hefty information dumps at times. Eventually, the audience learns that the source of Izard’s mental problems is severe PTSD which he suffered as a result of his World War I experiences, during which the somewhat idealistic Izard got a rude introduction to the horrors of war. Ironically, those same horrors in the Second World War became the cause of Florence’s losing her supernatural powers.


That’s some heavy material for youngsters to assimilate, and, much of it may well go over their heads. They will identify more with Lewis’ feelings of alienation and his attempts to fit in at his new school, as well as his attempt to come to terms with the loss of his parents, a problem that becomes a major plot point in the movie. I was pleasantly surprised that Eli Roth was able to handle these scenes with the proper degree of delicacy and respect. Lewis learns some valuable life lessons the hard way in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but the film doesn’t ram those lessons down the audience’s throat in the manner of an Afterschool Special.


In addition to his problems with the supernatural exposition, Roth doesn’t seem to have a great handle on the action sequences either. The special effects are passable but by no means as spectacular as what audiences are used to nowadays, and the action drags on a bit too much. Also, while Roth avoids the blood and gore that’s a trademark of his more adult fare, he can’t resist “goo” jokes, such as having a topiary griffin living in the mansion’s backyard “poop” out large amounts of decaying leaves or including a scene involving Halloween jack-o-lanterns that essentially vomit out pumpkin innards on the main characters.


With a lower wattage cast, The House with a Clock in Its Walls would probably have been completely run-of-the-mill. However, Eli Roth is fortunate to be working with two of the best actors around at this sort of material (not to mention Kyle MacLachlan who goes suitably overboard in his villainy when needed). Jack Black has mastered playing goofily energetic roles like Uncle Jonathan here and is one of the most inherently likable actors around. However, it’s Cate Blanchett who steals the show here, making Florence an energetic, charming force of nature. The frequent bickering between her and Black (part of which appears in the clip below) is the most entertaining aspect of the film for adults.


The House with a Clock in Its Walls is one of many children’s movies featuring action scenes that may wear thin for adults and some lengthy exposition that may become boring for children. Both adults and children, however, will appreciate the general story and the two actors who bring the film to life. The movie can’t hold its own, either in its story or its execution, with the Harry Potter movies, but, as weekend matinee entertainment, it’s decent enough for young and old.

In this clip, Jack Black exchanges good-natured insults with Cate Blanchett.

Read other reviews of The House with a Clock in Its Walls: 

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018) on IMDb