Navigating through the worlds of witchcraft, horror and adolescent fiction has proven to be a challenge for writers and publishers throughout literary history. With the success of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps and the blockbuster phenomenon of J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series, this genre has proven to be a lucrative venture for publishing houses and the movie studios. Plumbing the depths of this category of writing, they have gone back to the prolific author, John Bellairs who wrote over 15 novels within this genre including The House with the Clock in the Walls.
A nostalgic journey back to 1953 in New Zebedee, Michigan and the arrival of the recently orphaned, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro). The young fan of dictionaries who carries a magic eight ball to communicate with his deceased parents has come to the Midwest township to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). As he adapts to living in his uncle’s strange house and the friendly, but bizarre next door neighbour, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), Lewis comes to the realisation that his family lineage includes a world of magic and witchcraft. It does not take long for the young nephew to discover his uncle is a warlock and that the quirks of the house are due to a curse from a recently deceased sorcerer, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan).
Even though his uncle and friend are good witches and most of the house contains harmless aspects, the clock in the walls causes restless nights for them all and seems to be ticking down to something sinister. While dealing with the unusual nature of his new residence, he does not fear the world of witchcraft, but is challenged to learn more and develop his own magical skills. Throughout his training in the darker spiritual realm, Lewis does have to attend the local primary school. As he tries to fit in, he attempts to find acceptance from one of the cooler kids at school by impressing him with enacting a spell that raises people from the dead. Not surprisingly, these actions go awry and the aspiring warlock manages to raise Isaac Izard from his deathbed and he has dastardly plans to take advantage of his second lease on life.
Even though the Harry Potter series dealt with the darker elements of the realm of sorcery and magic, Rowling was able to provide a storyline that seemed to draw a well-defined line between good and evil which was carefully conveyed in the subsequent films. This paradigm did not seem to be exemplified with the film interpretation of Bellairs book by placing this adolescent tale in the directorial hands of the torture-horror specialist, Eli Roth (Hostel). This is a dark journey into the realm of the spiritual world that fails to allow any light or humour into Lewis Barnavelt.
Despite Jack Black and Cate Blanchett being fully committed to their offbeat and endearing characters, they cannot lift this script out of the darker recesses of the original story. They do provide a magical connection with Owen Vaccaro, but nothing within the screenplay offers much for viewers to cheer for in the end. From the bullying at school and within the ranks of witchcraft, the solutions fail to be remotely funny or lift the protagonists above their adversaries. Especially after being inundated with another orphaned wizard for the past decade, the screenwriters are at a loss to find anything original to add to this familiar narrative. The House with the Clock in the Walls is dark, unimaginative and will lack the magic to win over audiences during this cinematic season.
What should I know as a parent before going into The House with a Clock in the Walls?
Depending on where parents sit on the subject matter of witchcraft will determine how to respond to this film. This can range from Harry Potter to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when it comes to adolescent literature, but be aware that this film goes deeper into the dark arts of magic. Travelling deeper than most Goosebumps tales, Eli Roth’s interpretation of John Bellairs novel is dark and deals with content containing demons, witches, and sorcery with little humour or hope. Despite having the value of family as a central theme, most of the storyline relies on dark magic to communicate the message.