'The House With a Clock in Its Walls': Film Review

A zany, immaculately designed kids adventure.

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett star in Eli Roth’s first film for kids, based on the book by John Bellairs.

Eli Roth shows himself unafraid of chronic neck pain with The House With a Clock in Its Walls, pivoting from March’s tepidly received Death Wish remake to an Amblin film about an orphan adopted by his warlock uncle and inducted into an exciting new world of magic. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett topline what’s clearly intended to be a franchise starter, with Daddy’s Home tyke Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, the star of a series that started with John Bellairs’ 1973 book, on which this handsome exercise in nostalgia is based.

The movie is a throwback to studio fare like Hocus Pocus or Casper — it's anybody’s guess if Universal can entice parents to theaters when it opens Friday. But as a family film in that vein it largely succeeds, buoyed by Black’s typical exuberance, Blanchett’s typical slyness and a richly evocative rendering of a Rockwellian suburb sprinkled with goofer dust. Less interesting, as is the way with many audience-avatar YA protagonists (sorry, Harry), is the main character, and Vaccaro’s rather hyper-articulated performance doesn’t help.

Kitted out by Marlene Stewart in a tweed jacket, bow tie and aviator goggles, Lewis (Vaccaro) arrives in the fictional New Zebedee, Michigan, in 1955, to meet his uncle Jonathan (Black), who has assumed custody of the boy after the death of his parents in a car crash. Sporting a boxed beard and black kimono, Black leans into his regular persona, period be damned, begrudgingly telling a matronly neighbor (a memorable Colleen Camp) he’ll keep the noise down after midnight, even though “them’s me best jamming hours.” He’s a dream guardian, serving choc-chip cookies for dinner and insisting there’s no such thing as bedtime.  

Jonathan’s next-door neighbor and best friend, Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), is introduced stepping out of a grandfather clock that seems to connect their two homes. The house itself could be a replica of Stephen King’s, and its velour interior, designed by Jon Hutman and dressed by Ellen Brill, reps the film’s most distinctive ingredient, a mahogany-gold wonderland of seemingly limitless dimensions. It’s also the source of nightly ticktocking, though Florence can’t find anything in the crawl space. Wearing a pencil skirt and gray bun — Jonathan describes her, affectionately, as looking like a Q-tip — Zimmerman is an emigree from Paris who came to America after the war, in which her husband and child were killed. Blink and you’ll miss the numerical tattoo on her arm, visible briefly in one scene.

That loss makes her protective of Lewis, a precocious lad who carries dictionaries in his suitcase and uses words like “pulchritudinous.” He’s naturally shunned at school. The only classmate to show him any kindness is Tarby (Mid90s star Sunny Suljic), a cool kid dressed like a greaser, who’s shocked to learn that Lewis lives in what the neighborhood kids refer to as “the slaughterhouse.” Convinced that his uncle intends to do him harm, Lewis attempts to flee, forcing Jonathan to reveal his true magical self — and the boy’s alarm quickly transforms into the excitement of a budding pupil. Cue a montage in which editor Fred Raskin fades from textbook-skimming in the library to the boy out in the garden, demonstrating his newfound knowledge in front of the house pet, a topiary griffin with unpredictable bowel movements.

That sequence is set to one of a handful of period tunes that complement Nathan Barr’s fluting score, and the filmmakers have fun indulging in the trappings of the era, from Jonathan’s rusted-out Morris Minor to the Captain Midnight serials that Lewis is obsessed with, in one of which the director even has a cameo. Desaturated flashback sequences reveal that the house (and the clock that turns out to be not exactly within its walls) is ground zero for a nefarious plot set in motion by its former owner: Jonathan’s old stage partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), whose wartime experience has left him with a seething hatred for human beings. Their reunion is shot like a silent movie, and Black amusingly — and unsurprisingly — nails the bigness of the gestures.

The period of Hollywood filmmaking that Roth is most keenly paying homage to is not the '20s or even the '50s, but the '80s, and the film is as much about tipping the hat to Amblin classics like Back to the Future (as well as the work of Spielberg himself) as it is a pro forma paean to embracing one’s weirdness. The House With a Clock in Its Walls is most of all a child’s-eye view of a fractured family and its eventual reconstitution, in which a Holocaust survivor thwarts a plan to exterminate not just a race, but humanity itself. 

It’s also the closest we’ll likely get to seeing Blanchett as an action heroine outside the Marvel universe, pole-vaulting through a transom window and executing a perfect handstand escape from an attack of sharp-fanged jack-o'-lanterns. The scenes she shares with Black — “I’d give you an ugly look but you’ve already got one,” she tells him — approximate a kind of screwball, but one that’s romance-free and largely frictionless (their single confrontation, in which Florence upbraids Jonathan for shirking his parental responsibilities, seems to have flown in from a different movie). But it’s an enjoyably unlikely pairing nonetheless, and they get the best of Eric Kripke’s literate script.

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Reliance Entertainment, Mythology Entertainment
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Kyle Maclachlan, 
Renée Elise Goldsberry
Director: Eli Roth
Screenwriter: Eric Kripke
Producers: Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt, Eric Kripke
Director of photography: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Jon Hutman
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Fred Raskin
Music: Nathan Barr
Casting: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy

Rated PG, 105 minutes