Fresh off a string of failed horror flicks, Eli Roth bounces back with an unexpectedly fun, faithful adaptation of John Bellairs' classic kid's adventure books.
The prospect of grindhouse provocateur Eli Roth directing a four-quadrant kid’s flick is a dicey, but fascinating one – yet here we are in late September, with Roth’s adaptation of John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in its Walls. To add to the confusion, it’s an Eli Roth adaptation of relatively serious kids’ books starring Jack Black – it’s tempting to think they turned it into an obnoxiously goofy comedy. What a surprise, then, to find a movie that managed to keep most of the charm of the book, while still feeling somewhat relevant.
The plot is roughly the same as the book – in 1955, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moves to the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan, to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) after the death of Lewis’ parents. At first, Lewis is apprehensive of his eccentric uncle, who has multiple clocks and spends his nights wandering the halls, as well his equally strange friend, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who seems to also be hiding something from him. However, he warms up to them once he learns that they are good witches and wizards, searching for a magic clock that was hidden by the previous owners: the evil magicians Isaac and Selena Izard (Kyle MacLachlan and Renée Elise Goldsberry respectively), who created the clock before dying while performing black magic.
The two magicians decide to teach Lewis magic, and the boy learns to become a competent wizard in his own right. However, while Lewis flourishes in magic, his social life is lacking- only having one tenuous friend, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), who seems to be losing interest in Lewis after winning a class election. In an effort to regain Tarby’s friendship, Lewis performs a spell that unwittingly resurrects Isaac. Now, Jonathan, Florence, and Lewis must find the clock before Isaac destroys the world.
While The House with a Clock in its Walls adheres to the book in a lot of ways, there are quite a few necessary changes. The book’s plot really wouldn’t work well for a movie, especially its climax, and the characters sometimes feel a little flat. The film makes the climax more action-packed, with visceral fight sequences and the visual inventiveness of the house turning into a giant clock. The book also puts more focus on Lewis learning magic, and his bullyingby other kids (who in the movie are polite but distant), which makes his decision to perform necromancy a little more believable.
More than plot changes, the thing that sets The House with a Clock in its Walls apart from the book is way it expands the adult characters. While Jonathan and Florence have the same personality as their book counterparts, the film spends a lot more time on their backstory. In the film, the Isaac and Jonathan were friends before Isaac turned to black magic, and Florence has lost her magic due to losing her family in World War 2. In fact, PTSD from the war is an important part of the villains’ backstory, making the Izards more than just the standard “evil for evil’s sake” bad guys they were in the book. It gave the film a slightly more nuanced and mature outlook into what makes people do bad things.
Of course, being a kid’s movie, the humor is firmly comfortable in broad schtick, which can tire quickly. Outside of potty humor (specifically a topiary lion who “poops” leaves) and slapstick, a lot of the humor depends on how funny you think Jack Black being Jack Black is. There are a lot of running jokes that only really work with Black’s specific expressions and inflections, but it’s the same thing we’ve seen from him since the aughts.
That isn’t to say that it’s all bad – the movie keeps Florence and Jonathan’s friendly barbs to each other, and the results are both funny and charming. Blanchett reserved elegance plays well off of Black’s goofiness, and even reigns it in a bit – the pair really do feel like friends. Both also have good chemistry with Vaccaro, who performs his role with infectious (if sometimes broad) charm. It’s certainly shocking to admit that Roth made a movie with likeable characters, but hey, 2018 is a weird year.
In fact, Roth’s horror pedigree surprisingly shines here, as there are some truly creepy scenes. Most notable is a scene where Lewis sees Isaac Izard in the window of a neighbor’s house. It’s creepy and foreboding, a subtle type of horror that is missing in a lot of adult chillers. In fact, most of the creepy scenes are the type of suspenseful, well-shot, and subtle scares that I’d like to see more of in adult movies (again, shocking coming from Roth’s dubious filmography). But while the creepy scenes are enjoyable, some of them could be too intense for some kids. It’s a shame the marketing didn’t push the creepiness a little more so parents know what to expect, but wanting marketers to be honest is a fool’s errand.
Will fans of the book like this adaptation of The House With a Clock in its Walls? It’s certainly possible. It may have taken a few liberties, but they are purposeful (if sometimes superflouus) changes that help morph a classic children’s book into a surprisingly chilling adventure. More importantly, they give kids, parents, and general audiences a reason to revisit the spooky world of John Bellairs.
The House with a Clock in its Walls arrives in theaters like clockwork on Friday, September 21st.