Movie Review: The House With A Clock In Its Walls

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Image Source: NPR

Written By: Donna M Day

Distributor: Entertainment One
Production Companies: DreamWorks (copyright holder only), Amblin Entertainment and Mythology Entertainment
Director: Eli Roth
Producers: Brad Fischer, Laeta Kalogridis, Eric Kripke, W. Mark McNair, Tracey Nyberg, William Sherak and James Vanderbilt
Scriptwriter: Eric Kripke (based on the novel by John Bellairs)
Main Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro
Released: September 21 2018
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Certificate: 12A

The House With A Clock In Its Walls tells the story of the recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) and his new life with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black).

The film opens with Lewis’ journey to Zebedee in Michigan to live with his uncle. Arriving at his uncle’s house, Lewis is surprised to see a large number of Jack-o’-Lantern’s outside despite the fact that it is not Halloween. He is even more surprised to see hundreds of clocks when entering the house. But glowing pumpkins and endless ticking are by far the least strange things about Lewis’ new home.

It quickly becomes clear that there is much more to Uncle Jonathan and his next door neighbour Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) than meets the eye, but Lewis quickly settles into his new home. With no bedtime and chocolate chip cookies for dinner, life with Uncle Jonathan is pretty easy. There is only one rule: never open the locked cabinet.

Lewis soon notices strange things happening in the house and is woken up several times by unusual noises. Struggling at his new school, he only manages to make one friend, that being the athletic and popular Tarby (Sunny Suljic) who is running for class president. Telling Tarby where he lives, he soon learns that his new home is known as “the Slaughterhouse”, and the last man to live there was violently murdered and haunts it.

His suspicions about Uncle Jonathan grow, and when the ghost of his mother appears to him in a dream telling him that his uncle is keeping secrets from him and he is in danger, he begins to panic. Waking from the dream to loud noises, he sees Uncle Jonathan hacking at the walls with an axe. Terrified that his uncle is an axe murderer, he tries to flee the house, but the building itself won’t let him leave.

Uncle Jonathan appears and tells the terrified child the truth. He is a warlock, Mrs Zimmerman is a witch, and the house used to belong to their friend and fellow warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who hid a clock in the walls of the house before he died. Uncle Jonathan’s huge collection of clocks is a clumsy attempt to drown out the incessant ticking from this clock which he can’t find.

Lewis begs to learn magic and Uncle Jonathan reluctantly agrees to teach him, but as Lewis’ powers grow, Uncle Jonathan and Mrs Zimmerman become increasingly desperate to find the clock in the walls. When Tarby is elected class president and casts Lewis aside, Lewis tells him about magic in order to try and impress him and keep his friend.

Lewis’ attempts to impress Tarby fail,, and Lewis’ mother keeps appearing and telling him that Jonathan isn’t trustworthy. Had Jonathan told Lewis the whole truth, what is he keeping in the locked cabinet, and what is the story behind the mysterious clock in the walls?

The answers to these questions begin a terrifying journey where Lewis will find himself fighting to save the world, and trying to make a few true friends along the way.

The film is set in the mid-1950s in a small town, and has a very nostalgic feel to it with the ideal American stereotype of neat gardens surrounded by white picket fences. Uncle Jonathan’s house is the archetypal horror house, with high turrets and large bay windows. Much of the furniture and interior is a combination of Halloween paraphernalia and steampunk inspired décor. Lewis wears goggles throughout the film, imitating his hero Captain Midnight, another nod to the steampunk genre. Mrs Zimmerman always wears purple, a colour often associated with spiritual power in the supernatural world as well as steampunk.

The combination of these elements creates a jarring effect, as the seemingly creepy and dangerous Uncle Jonathan’s house and safe gentle school are actually flipped in reality, with Lewis finding much more safety and security at home than at school.

Lewis’ attempts to navigate a new school and town while learning magic bring a nice supernatural element to this coming of age story. Many children will identify with Lewis’ clumsy attempts to make new friends and understand him using his magical skills to try and impress others. The film’s rating should be noted, as there are a number of scenes of peril and some subtle adult humour which may make it unsuitable to be viewed by younger children.

The chemistry between Jack Black and Cate Blanchett is very strong and creates most of the humour in the film. Their repeated childish bickering will amuse children and adults alike, and the serious elements of their characters are well rounded and believable. Scenes where both characters express regrets about their lives to Lewis are poignant and heartfelt and flesh out the backstory well.

The special effects in the film are spectacular, creating both comedy and terror. Bright colours and flashing lights are made full use of and the sound effects used well support the wonderful visual elements.

The orphan moving in with strange relatives story has been done time and again, but the fun supernatural elements and combination of humour and horror in The House With A Clock In Its Walls makes it a lovely story that shows the most wonderful things can happen when you’re a little bit weird.

The release has been well-timed if you’re looking for a family-friendly film to see over the Halloween period.

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good