Cast: Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Owen Wilder Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Eli Roth
The House With A Clock In Its Walls is quite literally about a house with a clock in its walls. This hidden clock ticks away steadily, occasionally letting out loud and unearthly gongs — usually at night, when the occupants of the house are asleep. These occupants include: Jonathan Barnavelt and his 10-year-old nephew Lewis.
Lewis (Owen Wilder Vaccaro) is a recent entrant to the house — where the furnishings and fixtures behave oddly, even discounting the ticking emanating from within the walls. An armchair acts like a pet dog, the stained glass of the windows likes to rearrange itself into meaningful shapes, a hedge lion in the backyard poops. Nothing in the house, however, is quite as odd as his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who becomes Lewis’ guardian after the death of his parents.
Jonathan is a kind — if eccentric — guardian; along with his neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), he provides Lewis an unorthodox upbringing. Still, Lewis is frightened by the gongs that resonate through the house at night, and on seeing his uncle pounding away at the walls with an axe in the aftermath. There’s trouble for Lewis at school too: he’s like a fish out of water, and friendless except for the presence of one classmate called Tarby who seems to take an interest in him.
Things improve when Lewis discovers his uncle is a warlock, and Florence a witch. He begins to learn magic under their tutelage. But the sinister ticking presence in the house won’t go away — and Lewis discovers it is the legacy of the previous owner, a powerful warlock named Isaac Izard. Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) was once Jonathan Barnavelt’s close friend; having crossed over to the dark side, he dies while performing some dastardly blood magic. But have Izard’s malevolent intentions really been stymied? And if not, is Lewis the boy to do so?
The House With A Clock In Its Walls is based on the book of the same name by John Bellairs, which was published in 1973; not having read the source material (or the 11 other Lewis Barnavelt mysteries that followed), I cannot comment on how closely the film follows the original story. I suppose very small children might find the film engrossing, but even to slightly older ones, the gaps in the film’s plot must seem very evident. For instance, Lewis disobeys his uncle (and sets off “a series of unfortunate events” — to borrow from other popular children’s literature) in order to impress Tarby and prevent their friendship from unraveling, but the Tarby-Lewis friendship itself is half-baked, as depicted in the film. Should characters and their motivations not be well-etched just because this is a children’s film?
The film also fritters away its more promising aspects: the hunt for the clock in the wall, which is genuinely spooky in the beginning, ends in Isaac Izard’s laughably evil plan; tense atmospherics are later traded in for a campy denouement.
Which is a pity, because an old Gothic house and magic make for good bedfellows, and director Eli Roth does pack his film with quirky, winsome visuals. Owen Wilder Vaccaro is cute enough, Cate Blanchett is dependably gracious and elegant, while Jack Black is Jack Black. Meaning that Jonathan Barnavelt — except for being surrounded by different props — is not very different from School of Rock‘s Dewey Finn.
Despite its relatively compact run-time of an hour and 45 minutes, The House With A Clock In Its Walls will have you watching the clock. It isn’t a bad film, merely a blah one. If the makers intend to adapt more of the Lewis Barnavelt books for the big screen, perhaps they should take a leaf or two out of the best children’s films of our age before attempting another yawn-inducing adventure.