The House With A Clock In Its Walls

 

            The Gothic teen novel was first published in 1973, by John Bellairs, who died in 1991.  But it's brought to the big screen because of the wild popularity of magic themes targeting youth audiences (such as the “Harry Potter” series).

            This one, too, features a little boy, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), who loses his parents and is sent off to live with an Uncle he barely knows.  In this case, though, Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) is not a bad guy, he's just a little weird.  And so is the house he lives in, with clocks all over the walls, and creepy decorations throughout.  Uncle Jonathan seems to have one friend in the world, the next door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).  She seems kind, but she, too, is a little strange, and subject to sibling-type exchange of insults with Uncle Jonathan.

            Lewis' experiences in his new school don't turn out so well.  There's one kid who tries a little to befriend him, but only because he sidelined from athletics with a cast on his arm.  The minute he's better and can play with the other boys again, he doesn't want anything to do with Lewis, whom he considers strange with his bowties and goggles. (Actually, what's strange about the school sequences is seeing harmonious integration in 1955, and for that matter, in the town restaurants, as well.  It may be the moviemaker's idea of an idyllic past, but it doesn't feel very authentic.)

            Lewis gradually discovers that his Uncle Jonathan is more than a little strange, he's a warlock, that is, a male witch.  He knows magic, which he dismisses as “parlor tricks,” but Lewis senses there's much more here.  Uncle Jonathan gives him lots of dusty old tomes to read, thinking that will dampen Lewis' enthusiasm, but instead it stokes his interest in practicing magic himself.

            Of course there's a bad guy, who turns out to be the previous occupant of the house, who died the year before, but has left a ticking clock within the walls of the house, that is counting down to a strange kind of doomsday, where time will go backwards until the world starts over again.

            Lewis gets in over his head with attempting to delve into magic, sometimes comically, and other times it's not so funny.  Lewis misses his Mom so much that she makes nocturnal appearances in his bedroom, which both comforts him and distresses him.  He kind of gets used to the weird furnishings in the house, until they start attacking him.  Some of these scarier elements might be too intense for younger children. 

            Since it's a movie aimed at kids, we can't seem to escape the flatulence jokes, but that seems to be Director Eli Roth's way of interjecting humor.  And there's a considerable sag in the middle, after we've introduced the characters, and before we resolve the tension in the story.   Nonetheless, for those who would enjoy something  uniquely creative, and a little bit dark, this one is weirdly watchable.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association