It’s a pretty typical coming of age story with a dose of Harry Potter, but The House with a Clock in its Walls is an entertaining read. The book has some tension and suspense, but mostly it’s straight “horror” teen literature. Which is why it’s surprising that the film adaptation turns out to be teetering on the edge of being too frightening for its very market, children and tweens who want a good scare, but not too much.
The story, set in the mid 1950’s, follows the exploits of ten year old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro). When his parents die in a car crash, he goes to live with his mysterious uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in the small rural town of New Zebede, Michigan. Lewis is a bit of an oddball, perpetually wearing goggles to emulate his fictional hero, Captain Midnight, but even he’s not prepared for his über-peculiar Uncle. Not to mention Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), the snippy older woman who lives next door but is always at their house. And Jonathan’s house! Oh, what a wonderful place it is, with turrets, gables, grand staircases, stained glass windows and a pipe organ.
It’s clear to Lewis that there’s more to the house and more to his Uncle than meets the eye, though. He eventually realizes that the house is a hotbed of magic and Uncle Jonathan is a warlock. Not a very good one, admittedly, but he does know his magic. Not only that, but Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch, though she seems to get most of her spells wrong too.
A 10yo boy’s life is just as much about school, however, and Lewis attends New Zebede Elementary, where he becomes friends with Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic). Tarby’s popular, a star athlete and is running for student body president. He also has a broken wrist which has incapacitated him, a circumstance that causes him to befriend Lewis. As the new kid, Lewis really wants to impress Tarby and lets slip about the magic that lives in the house. Tarby, no surprise, is pretty skeptical. To prove his magical abilities, Lewis grandstands and inadvertently resurrects evil warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Big problem!
There are really two stories intertwined in The House with a Clock in its Walls; the coming of age story about Lewis learning to embrace his uniqueness rather than try to be one of the popular kids, and the good vs evil of Uncle Jonathan versus Isaac Izard. The latter is really the source of all the scares and alarming scenes, particularly when Izard shares his journey to what we’d call “the dark side”.
How scary was it? The 10yo boy sitting next to me was hyperventilating in fear through some scenes and at one particularly dark and moody scene another child started screaming and sobbing “It’s scary!” and had to be led out of the theater. And yet it’s not so much the visuals that are frightening as the brilliant sound foley. There’s almost always an ominous rumble or ticking sound and director Eli Roth doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to building suspense.
The overall production had a very similar feel to the recent Jack Black family horror film Goosebumps. Beautifully shot, with top notch sets and visual effects, it was a very immersive experience that definitely enhanced the story. For an older teen or adult, that immersion in the creepy world of Uncle Jonathan’s house is good fun, but for someone younger, it might just prove a bit too immersive and frightening. There are also some running gags that are clearly added for younger viewers (notably with the topiary lion in the yard) but they offer a brief respite from the ongoing tension and suspense, not a balance between light and dark.
Still, I really enjoyed The House with a Clock in its Walls. I really enjoy this genre of “light horror” where it’s ostensibly aimed at tween and teen viewers but has plenty of jump scares and frights for a more mature audience. Jack Black delivers his now standard weird guy performance that works very well, and the banter between Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman is quite amusing. There are very few surprises in the story, but if you seek something a bit more creepy and peculiar than the now-pedestrian Harry Potter series, The House with a Clock in its Walls might be a solid choice to explore.