The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a surprising family-friendly entry to extreme horror director Eli Roth’s filmography. It’s an adaptation of a beloved 1973 children’s book of the same name by John Bellairs, originally illustrated by Edward Gorey, whose droll visual style is all over the film along with the idealised Americana of Norman Rockwell.
Set in New Zebedee, Michigan, in 1955, this film tells the story of freshly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moving in with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who lives in a lavish Victorian Gothic house. Jonathan’s neighbour and friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a regular visitor, and the two have playful verbal sparring matches that got some laughs. It emerges that Jonathan is a warlock (although not a great one) and Florence is a witch (an excellent one), and the house is magical and holds a dark secret. All this happens while Lewis, who is an oddball for his own reasons, is struggling to fit in at his new school.
Black’s performance is affable and relatively unobtrusive while Blanchett is quite excellent as the peevish but kindly Zimmerman whose tragic past is explained in general terms, but whose arm briefly shows tattooed numerals that hint at something even darker. Precocious young Vaccaro is only mildly annoying, and Kyle MacLachlan puts in a good villainous turn as Isaac Izard, a former friend of Jonathan gone mad due to his experiences in the war. A notable nod to Roth’s favoured genre is the presence of classic B-movie queen Colleen Camp, as a scolding neighbour living over the road.
This is definitely a film for younger audiences but it’s never obnoxious outside of some mild scatological gags involving an enchanted topiary griffin. I can’t say I was terribly passionate about what I was watching because I’m just too old for the simplistic material, but there’s some beautiful sonic and visual craftsmanship on display here, with lush visuals absolutely packed with detail and misty, autumnal scenery. As far as kids’ films go, and especially compared to execrable, enraging dreck like A Wrinkle in Time, this film is perfectly enjoyable and suitable for (almost) all ages.
That said, despite being pitched at children there are a few scenes likely to scare the living daylights out of some of them, as Roth’s horror sensibilities are really let off the leash once or twice. This film has a comfort showing some of the darker parts of the occult that’s actually sort of refreshing and commendable. There’s an appearance by a demon later in the film that is pure nightmare fuel in a really good way. It reminded me a little of classic dark ’80s children’s movies like NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth and Return to Oz, where expert use of nightmarish imagery formed a lasting impression on all the kids who saw them.
The inevitable comparisons with Harry Potter will be made, but the book this film is based on predates that series by decades. If I had a criticism, it’s that the film is a little murky on the limits of everyone’s magical powers, and this deflates tension because you aren’t sure what they can or can’t do. Had it gradually ramped up Lewis’ development as a warlock, the narrative would have been more involving. This is a fairly minor nitpick for a children’s movie, though, and overall it’s an endurable experience for adult audiences. The story is also more than a little rushed, but that’s excusable in a one-off film aimed at kids. I have a suspicion this will pass into lore as one of those “too dark for children” movies that kids love and then talk about decades later.
There’s no compelling reason for an adult to see this alone, but if you know your kids can handle the spooky stuff, I think they’ll probably love it. A warning, though: If your kids are easily scared you’re probably going to regret taking them to see it. I can’t say exactly what age it suits, but the protagonist is ten years old, so maybe that’s about right.