“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is an uncomplicated story about loss and the healing power of magic and love. An orphaned boy finds danger at school and home as he settles in with his uncle and learns to be a warlock. The movie has gentle delights and mild scares, making it good Halloween fare for the family.
This isn’t Harry Potter redux. Any resemblance to Harry Potter must be considered happenstance–“The House with a Clock” is based on a 1973 book by the same name. American John Bellairs (1938-1991) developed a series that, after his death, was continued by Brad Strickland. The first Potter book was published in 1997.
In this case, the orphan is ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) and the year is 1955. Lewis received a letter and some silver coins and a bus ticket to New Zebedee, Michigan where his Uncle Jonathan lives (Jack Black). Uncle Jonathan drives a rust bucket smallish car in an era before subcompacts and compact cars were hip. He picks up Owen wearing a black kimono with an ostentatious dragon embroidered on the back.
The house where Uncle Jonathan lives is similarly flamboyant–from the stylized Victorian-ish floral wallpaper and the many clocks to the organ under the stairwell and the stain glass window at the top of the stairs. And yet the organ seems to play on its own, an overstuffed chair has feelings like an shy and stand-offish dog and the stain glass window seems to send messages. That ship sailing scene might be a tip of the hat to the Chronicles of Narnia (“Adventure on the Dawn Treader” which introduces Eustace Scrubb).
Lewis soon learns that his uncle is a warlock and that anyone can, with enough study, become a warlock. His best friend and neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), is a witch who has lost her focal center but still makes great chocolate chip cookies. Cookies and chocolate milk can be eaten as a meal and Lewis can stay up as late as he wants. There is only one rule: Do not open the locked cabinet.
At night, Lewis is visited by his mother (Lorenza Izzo) who warns Lewis his uncle is hiding something and that Lewis must find a particular book and a key. Lewis discovers that his uncle is hunting for something–a clock hidden within the walls of the house. The house once belonged to a very powerful warlock, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Isaac and Jonathan had been partners, but after the war, Isaac came back an changed man.
At school, Lewis is befriended by Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljick), a popular boy and athlete who can’t participate in sports because of his broken arm. Tarby warns him about the house and the suspicious death of Isaac and turns out to be less of a friend much later.
Rose Rita Pottinger (Vanessa Anne Williams) seems dubious about Tarby and the nosey lady with the little dog, Mars. Hanchett (Colleen Camp) shows her general disapproval of Jonathan. There will be secret doors, a zombie and a shapeshifter along with a bit of kiddy revenge at the choose-teams time. The threesome of Mrs. Zimmerman, Uncle Jonathan and Lewis will save the world and one hopes the adventures will surely continue.
Ovaltine and its decoder will get a nostalgic boost. I wonder if it will bring back secret messages in hot drinks and cereals? No matter, Black makes this fun and director Eli Roth supplies the viewer with much eye candy as well as the stuff of nightmares (although muted enough that they will more likely spark the imagination rather than inspire weeks of kiddy nightmares). There’s just enough horror and slime to be fun and slightly anxiety producing but not anywhere near high anxiety or total terror.
Writer Eric Kripke (“Supernatural” and “Timeless”) has given Black and Blanchett enough insult patter to fuel a fandom–who knows? It might be a gateway to Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict (“Much Ado About Nothing”). Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever” and “Hostel”) aptly demonstrates he can dilute horror for the PG crowd.