The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a family-friendly horror film aimed more at kids than adults. I saw it yesterday with my nephew, and this review is based on what he told me as we walked out of the movie theater and drove home.
There are all manner of signifiers which jumped out at me as an adult viewer of The House With a Clock in Its Walls. From the very start, we are greeted with the old Amblin Entertainment logo, Steven Spielberg’s newly re-opened production company which was once responsible for Goonies, Gremlins, and various other 80s classics geared toward younger audiences. After that, a remarkably old-fashioned, hand-drawn animated opening credits sequence welcomes us into the film’s clearly throwback world and quietly proclaims this to be an Eli Roth film (aka, the torture porn guy making a complete stylistic and tonal detour) written by Eric Kripke (aka, the Supernatural guy making a rare stop in feature film).
None of this meant anything to my 11-year-old nephew. All he cared about was Jack Black. As far as he’s concerned, The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the real Goosebumps sequel he’s been waiting for, not that weird, Jack Black-less Goosebumps 2 marching into theaters next month.
The storyline which unfurls in The House With a Clock in Its Walls, adapted from John Bellairs’ 1973 juvenile mystery novel, is rather different from a Goosebumps novel. It’s closer to the Eli Roth doing a surprisingly capable imitation of the magic of Harry Potter mixed with the period details of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children mixed with the more kiddie horror and gothic house of the Christina Ricci Casper.
Set in 1954 Michigan, it involves a recently orphaned ten-year-old boy named Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) moving in with his eccentric uncle (Black) who turns out to be a warlock. With assistance from the uncle’s best friend and very powerful witch Florence (Cate Blanchett), Lewis quickly learns various magical spells, like making his bed with a simple flick of his magical wrist. But when he breaks his uncle’s one rule and uses his magic to impress the cool kid (mid90s’ Sunny Suljic) at school in a desperate bid to actually have a friend he inadvertently sets in motion events which just might bring about the end of the world. Of course, averting the apocalypse is secondary to Lewis’ larger mission, which is to learn how to just be himself and stop worrying about what other people think.
At no point does Black debate a talking ventriloquist dummy, though. That’s because House is Goosebumps-adjacent in that its a kids horror movie with a hammy Jack Black performance, but it’s far more restrained and somewhat leisurely-paced, running just 2 minutes longer than Goosebumps while somehow feeling half an hour longer.
In the first Goosebumps movie, Black lovably camps his way through a storyline which sees him playing a hacky version of R.L. Stine whose many fictional creations forever threaten to break into our reality, but since he’s just an author, not an action hero, he’s astonishingly inept in combat and in constant need of saving.
Not the case with The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Black is indeed an inferior warlock compared to his nemesis (Kyle Maclachlan) and usually needs Florence and Lewis’ help, but he’s not quite the same comic relief figure and complete, quotable ham as Black’s Stine.
I thought this might discourage my nephew. In the weeks after I took him to see Goosebumps, he found any way he could to work his favorite Black line from the movie – “Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts. The beginning. The middle. And the twist!” – into casual conversation. Most of the time, this just took the form of him saying “the twist” in that over-the-top Jack Black kind of way.
For example: “What flavor of yogurt do you want from Braum’s?”/ “The twist!” / “So, you mean vanilla and chocolate?” / “No, the twist!” / “Gotcha.”
What new favorite Jack Black line reading from The House With a Clock in Its Walls will he be quoting now, I wondered.
So far, none of them.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t like The House With a Clock in Its Walls; he just didn’t love it as much. I’m inclined to agree with him.
His exact review – what he said when I asked what he thought about the movie – went something like: “It was better than I expected. I know I said I really, really wanted to see it, but, honestly, I just went because it was something fun to do. So, I wasn’t expecting much from it. But it’s actually a really good movie. It is kind of Goosebumps-y, but it also reminded me of Indiana Jones.”
I should pause to note there is a third act set piece involving the various wheels and gears of a giant clock descending on our heroes like some kind of death trap, and it’s not a huge stretch to imagine Indiana, maybe young Indiana, falling into a similar scenario.
His favorite moment? [SPOILER] When the bad guy turns Jack Black into a baby and we are greeted with the bizarre sight of a goo-goo, ga-gawing Black’s adult head on a baby’s body.
His favorite joke? Black and Blanchette playfully criticize each other in the most PG-taunt way possible throughout the film (Sample: Black tells her, “I’d give you an ugly look, but you already have one”), and just about every one of those insults made him laugh.
Was any of it too scary for him? No, but the sight of a witch shaking her head wildly in Arnold-in-Total-Recall fashion before morphing into someone else as part of a spell did scare him. Plus, this creepy doll which eventually attacks the heroes seriously freaked him out.
What about Cate Blanchett? Didn’t actually realize she was the same person who played Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, a film he loved last year. Mostly raved about the final battle sequences when Florence uses her umbrella like a gun shooting magical, purple bursts of energy out of its tip. He would kill to have that weapon in Fortnite.
Does it rank high on the list of his favorite movies? No. Nothing has beaten Ant-Man for him, not even Ant-Man and the Wasp. “[House With a Clock in Its Walls] was a fun, but it wasn’t a best-of-all-time kind of movie,” he said.
Most important to him, however, was the following insight: “It would definitely have been too scary for my little sister.” She’s 6. She loves Disney princesses and is still mortified whenever you show her the skeleton characters from Coco. House with a Clock in Its Walls would be too much for her, but not, it turns out, for anyone around my nephew’s age who likes Goosebumps.
House with a Clock in Its Walls ultimately serves as perfectly pleasant gateway horror film. My nephew would probably give it a sincere, if somewhat unenthusiastic thumbs up, but he’s busy playing Fortnite right now. Really, any movie that pulls him away from Fortnite for a couple of hours must have done something right. What about you? What did you and/or any of the kids in your life think of House? Let me know in the comments.