'The House with A Clock In Its Walls' More Or Less Faithfully Adapts John Bellairs' Classic Children's Thriller

By James Jay Edwards
Released: September 21, 2018
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A young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt aids his magical uncle in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world.

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Film Review
Earlier this year, the big-screen adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's beloved children's novel A Wrinkle in Time disappointed both critics and fans. The film was lackluster enough to cast doubts upon the next highly anticipated children's book adaptation, John Bellairs' The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Well, we can all rest easy. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a much better movie.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is about a young boy named Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro from the Daddy's Home movies) who is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black from Goosebumps and Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot) after the untimely death of his parents. Uncle Jonathan is a magician, and his house is full of wondrous things, including a clock that has been hidden in the walls by Jonathan's old deceased magic partner/nemesis Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan from "Twin Peaks") that is counting down to...something. With Jonathan's teaching, Lewis becomes a bit of a magician himself, but as he is showing off for his new friend, Tarby (The Killing of a Sacred Deer's Sunny Suljic), he unwittingly assists Izard's evil plan. With the help of Uncle Jonathan and his neighbor/best friend/fellow magician Florence Zimmerman (Ocean's Eight's Cate Blanchett), Lewis must figure out how to stop the countdown before it hits zero hour.

The House with a Clock in its Walls, courtesy Dreamworks/Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures.

Director Eli Roth, best known for grindhouse horror movies like Hostel and The Green Inferno, seemed to be making a play for the mainstream with his watered-down version of Death Wish earlier this year. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the next logical step in the "taming" of Roth. The screenplay, written by Eric Kripke ("Supernatural"), with a few small exceptions (and one pretty big one), sticks fairly close to the plot of Bellairs' book, so there's not much room for Roth to get bloody and gutsy. There is room for a slick, wide-eyed supernatural mystery that can be enjoyed by children of all ages. And with it, Eli Roth proves that he's more than just a schlock filmmaker.

A big part of why The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a more effective movie than A Wrinkle in Time has to do with the source material. John Bellairs' novel is a simple paranormal mystery, while Madeleine L'Engle's book is a complex, layered fantasy adventure. Bellairs' tale is much more filmable in the first place, so it's no wonder that its adaptation turned out to be a more enjoyable movie. All Kripke and Roth had to do was follow Bellairs' blueprint (which they do, for the most part) and they've got themselves a golden movie. Director Ava DuVernay had a much tougher task from the beginning with A Wrinkle in Time, and it proved to be insurmountable.

The House with a Clock in its Walls, courtesy Dreamworks/Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures.

So, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a better adaptation than A Wrinkle in Time. But how good of a movie is it? Well, it's the movie it pretends to be, no more, no less. Fans of stuff like Goosebumps or the Hotel Transylvania franchise will be entertained. It's not groundbreaking, but it doesn't have to be in order for it to be a good time in the dark. And, best yet, no childhoods were destroyed by the making of the movie.
Special Effects
The visual effects in The House with a Clock in Its Walls are super slick, to the point where sometimes it seems as if the SFX team is just showing off. All of the memorable effects sequences are computer generated, and they do feel a little weighty when compared to the straightforwardness of the story, but they look impressive. Jonathan's house includes picture-changing stained glass windows, a pet animate chair, and a hedge lion that patrols the grounds. At one point, Uncle Jonathan sets up a holographic replica of the solar system in the back yard for Lewis, and the entire scene is visually stunning. The film caps off with an effects-overloaded climax that features one of the most disturbing images in a movie this year (no spoilers, but let's just say it's more eye-scrubbing than anything in any horror movie). The CG effects may be a bit much for some viewers, but it's really the only way to tell the story of A House with a Clock in Its Walls.
Scary Factor
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is remembered as a scary book, but only by those who read it as a child, so predictably, Eli Roth's movie is fairly tame by modern horror standards (and especially tame by Eli Roth standards). There are a few good jump scares that will get the blood of the adults pumping, as well as some terrifying Tourist Trap-esque imagery to be be found in Uncle Jonathan's basement, but overall, there's nothing too shocking or grotesque. The House with a Clock in Its Walls will most likely only scare the youngest of children, which is fine, because that is, after all, its target audience. And the scares are all fun ones, so there's nothing that will keep its victims up at night once they've gone home.

The House with a Clock in its Walls, courtesy Dreamworks/Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures.

Comedy, Family, Fantasy
Release Date
September 21, 2018
MPAA Rating
John Bellairs
Production Designer
Casting Director
Music Score