The House with a Clock in Its Walls (HCW) is a kids’ movie from that master of queasy horror, Eli Roth. That the movie is as good as it is, is a testament to Roth’s talent as a filmmaker. It is a kids’ movie squarely aimed at them and never condescends; all while taking the very real risk of alienating the adults.
The story is ripped from the seemingly bottomless subgenre of the newly orphaned boy, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who is whisked away to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in the magical far away land of 1955 New Zebedee, Michigan. A practicing Warlock, Jonathan and his platonic friend Florence (Cate Blanchett), a witch herself, help Jonathan navigate the hellscape of adolescence and the mystery of the strange house in which they live.
Roth gives HCW the aesthetics of a young adult novel; which it is. Written by John Bellairs and unread by me, it must be noted that Bellairs and his book are from the 70’s. If it feels like a Goosebumps or R.L. Stine book it is for good reason; he helped lay the groundwork.
New Zebedee seems plunged in eternal autumn which gives HCW a sort of cheerful gloom. Uncle Jonathan is a quirky oddball with a capital Q. “Are you wearing a dress?” “It’s kimono.” Lewis wears goggles, just like his favorite television hero Captain Midnight. He also has a great passion for words and delights in reading dictionaries and reciting words and their definitions.
Personally, I found Lewis to be a tad tiresome and annoying. HCW seems to want to celebrate and lionize kooky people for kookiness’s sake. I say this because, with one exception, all the “weird” people are white and middle class. Yes, Jonathan lives in a spooky old house with an urban legend of it being the site of a grisly ax murder. But Florence lives in a normal house down the street and doesn’t seem to have any rumors about her. Aside from her love of purple, a love that to be honest suits her, she dresses, talks, and for all purposes seems normal.
When Lewis arrives at Jonathan’s house the old lady from across the street berates him for playing his saxophone at three in the morning. My first thought was this was less weird and more absurdly rude. But for HCW, Uncle Jonathan’s zany behavior is all part of the magic.
It’s this aspect that I think makes this wholly a venture for the kids. While nowhere near as obnoxious as Peter Rabbit, HCW does play at a level that is just a little too twee for my tastes. Although by the end I found myself slowly forgiving all this and just going along for the ride.
Roth has no trouble setting the tone right off, but he struggles to bring us into the world in an effective manner. The visual trappings feel like overly artificial. The production design is not off-putting so much as the world feels very clean and pristine. It does not feel like a world that is lived in. Leaves may be on the ground but they are on the ground in a way that feels as if they were put there as opposed to fell there.
The underlying theme of grief mixed with the dark obsessive side of male bonding between youths gives HCW much more subtext than it’s visual style would let on. A popular boy, Tarby (Sonny Suljic), a greaser, is running for class president. He befriends Lewis in an effort to get his vote.
After he wins the election, Tarby distances himself from Lewis. Lewis goes into a tailspin, desperate for his friendship and ends up blurting out his uncle is a warlock, his neighbor is a witch, and they are teaching him magic. Like any average eleven-year-old, Tarby is curious. He knows Lewis is probably making it up. Magic isn’t real after all. But just like the sideshow where the lady turns into a gorilla, we are drawn to seeing just how they pull it off.
Long story short, Lewis ends up raising the dead to impress his friend. But Lewis really doesn’t care about Tarby at all. Jonathan, in an attempt, to explain his relationship with Florence, told Lewis, “All you need is one really good friend.” His parents are newly dead, the ghost of his mother visits him late at night, Lewis merely wants what Jonathan has, someone to talk to.
Florence herself, we learn, ran away from Paris during the second world war. Her husband and daughter died. How, we are never told. Their death is meant to symbolize her broken heart. With Jonathan she has companionship but her magic is faulty. Because she is broken inside, and magic comes from within, her spells always come off sideways. If this were aimed at an older audience this would seem trite, but for kids, this is heady stuff to contemplate.
Like I said earlier, grief is the emotion that underpins the entirety of HCW. Even the man Lewis has raised from the dead, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) has his own grief. Jonathan’s ex-partner, the two had a magic act together until the war. Isaac went off to Europe and saw his whole battalion slaughtered before him. He wandered “the black forest” looking for something to help him forget.
Yeah, HCW goes to some dark places. To its credit, it never tries to overwhelm it’s intended audience. Despite all of the darkness bubbling underneath the surface, Roth and his cameraman Rogier Stoffers, keep a frothy and bouncy mood percolating throughout. The artificiality of it all might be a way to help the children understand this isn’t all real.
The script by Eric Kripke takes its cues from the old pulp serials in which Captain Midnight is in reference to. The stakes are high and so are the emotions but that doesn’t mean there’s ever any thought of giving up. The insults Jonathan and Florence trade, to our adult ears sound, cruel and unimaginative. But I can see how a child might delight in their cleverness and inventiveness. Adult or child, it’s hard not to marvel at Blanchett’s sublime delivery of “Choke and die.”
As Jonathan and Florence pore over Isaac’s blueprint and try to decipher the strange druidic code, Lewis has to but look at it. “I know this language! But we need some chocolate Ovaltine!” Few scripts would have the audacity to have the deus ex machina be a Captain Midnight decoder ring. I kind of love HCW for doing so.
Lewis pours the Ovaltine onto the soda shop table, Jonathan cries out “I don’t believe it!” Roth and Stoffers pull the camera back to reveal an old man behind the counter staring dumbfounded at the trio. “I don’t believe it!” Black’s Jonathan has the decency to blush and then order three Ovaltine shakes.
I guess what I’m trying to say is overall ,I admire HCW in places and enjoyed it in others. Had I been a child I would have placed this in my Top Ten All-Time Best Ever list. I appreciated the dark places Roth fearlessly waded into. But for most of HCW I felt kept at an arm’s length.
Whether this was because of my age or because of the material I’m not really sure. All I can say that by the end I found myself having a good time. More bemused than moved I nonetheless couldn’t help but smile as the world was once again saved by a Magic 8 Ball.