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31 Days of Halloween: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Published Wednesday, October 27, 2021 at 10:17pm

To me, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is one of the most important adaptations ever made, because it was one of the most important books of my childhood. I spent the latter half of elementary school obsessed with the works of John Bellairs, who wrote quite a few gothic horror novels for children between 1973 and his death in 1993. They aren't all winners, but the good ones—most of them, actually—are still worth picking up from time to time.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is probably the best, though, if I'm being honest with myself (I always preferred the sequel, The Figure in the Shadows, but as an adult I can see that it's a retread of its predecessor's greatest hits). Bellairs conceived it as a novel for adults but rewrote it for children at the behest of his publisher. It was immediately well-received thanks, no doubt, to its relatable characters and cozy Michigander setting, both inspired by Bellairs' own childhood.

The movie, mercifully, does all the important stuff right. It's not perfect and I'll get to that in a bit, but the tone is right and the story is intact.

The story begins in 1950 with ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) who arrives in New Zebedee, Michigan after the death of his parents. The plan is that he'll live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) the black sheep of the family whom he's never met before. Jonathan is eccentric ("Are you wearing a robe?" asks Lewis. "It's a kimono," Jonathan replies.), but he's determined to make a go of legal guardianship.

Jonathan lives in a sprawling, ornately decorated gothic mansion with fountains and stained glass windows and all the fixins (that's not the right word, is it?), and he introduces Lewis immediately to his neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). This is their regular poker night, and they're hoping Lewis will join them. Lewis is an inexperienced poker player, but he gets inexplicably good hands all night; in fact, sometimes the cards change when he's not looking. With the help of Mrs. Zimmerman's chocolate chip cookies and a mug of hot cocoa, he begins to feel more comfortable. Late that night, though, he hears Jonathan sneaking around the house. He follows at a distance until he accidentally sets off a clock and runs off to bed before Jonathan catches him.

The next day at school he has a hard time fitting in, but makes the acquaintance of an athletic boy named Tarby Corrigan who is nursing a broken arm. Tarby passes on some of the local gossip about Jonathan and the house. Lewis is skeptical that Jonathan might be an axe murderer, but he freaks out when he watches his uncle take an axe to a wall in the small hours of the morning. Jonathan has to patiently talk Lewis down and lets him in on his secret: he's a warlock, Mrs. Zimmerman is a powerful witch (or she used to be, anyway), and they are trying to find a magical device—a clock—that was hidden somewhere in the house by its former owner, a powerful and evil wizard now deceased. They don't know what the clock does, exactly, but it can't be good.

Now enlisted in the search, Lewis is interested in learning to do magic himself. Jonathan initially refuses to teach him anything but soon capitulates. Meanwhile, Tarby has won the election for class president, and now that his arm has healed, he can play sports again and doesn't need bookish Lewis's friendship. In an effort to win Tarby back, Lewis claims that he can show Tarby some real magic. The two of them fool around in the local cemetery with the necromancy book that Jonathan keeps under lock and key, and when something wakes up, they run off screaming.

Lewis's gamble doesn't pay off; Tarby is done with him, and supernatural events start occurring around Jonathan's house and they become increasingly more dangerous. Lewis knows he is to blame, but he's afraid to tell Jonathan or Mrs. Zimmerman what he has done.

So, that's the basic premise. After this, the story gets darker and more suspenseful. Before the movie is out, Lewis will have fought angry jack o'lanterns, seen his uncle de-aged to infancy, and tangled with the reanimated Isaac Izard.

I was a little worried about this movie when it was announced. The rights to John Bellairs' body of work have been purchased and expired a couple of times over since my childhood, and I wasn't optimistic that this movie would reach fruition. On top of that, director Eli Roth has made a name for himself in the realm of gristly horror for adults; he's not exactly the director I'd have chosen to make a children's movie. But he's done a great job of keeping things scary without crossing the threshold of age-appropriateness. Every time a Harry Potter movie came out, professional critics went on the record saying the world needs more good, scary movies for kids, and The House with a Clock in Its Walls strikes me as exactly what they were looking for.

I already said that they got it mostly right, but what did they get wrong? To start with, The House with a Clock in Its Walls came out in 2018, and children's fantasy movies post-Harry Potter are required to contain wall-to-wall CGI. Every inanimate object in Jonathan's house has a whimsical personality, and it's a little much. The ending, too, is a huge CGI centerpiece which is understandable because that's what modern audiences expect, but I don't think it's better. The villain, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), gets a little too much screentime considering that he never actually takes the stage in a novel; his wife is the big bad of the original story. Owen Vaccaro gives a great performance as Lewis, but he's thin where Lewis is quite overweight which is a major character trait. Cate Blanchett's Mrs. Zimmerman is younger and more cosmopolitan than I'd like; she needs to be at least decade older with less Sophia Loren and more Julia Child, and I'm not a fan of her new "lost her mojo when she lost a child" backstory. I'm also of two minds regarding the worldbuilding. On one hand, the film brings in a lot of characters from the next book. On the other, with no sequel in sight it feels like pointless fanservice. I assume the intention was to lay groundwork for a series, but the young actors have likely aged past the point that they can convincingly play ten-year-olds.

Actually, there's quite a litany of small sins, but why bother when almost everything else works? Writer Eric Kripke and director Eli Roth are about the right age to have been in love with the book as kids, and in spite of the numerous changes, they've put together a movie that hits all the right notes and captures the right spirit. The cast are outstanding, despite my misgivings. I feel like one of those Lord of the Rings fans who bought the DVDs, then the special edition, then the extended cut and then the BluRay and still occasionally lament that Tom Bombadil didn't make it into the movie. If The House with a Clock in Its Walls had come out when I was ten, I'd have rated it as a perfect adaptation.

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