“Do you hear the ticking?” The House With a Clock in its Walls is the latest film by director Eli Roth, an adaptation from the book with the same name, by John Bellairs. First of all, I feel the need to say I am a huge fan of Eli Roth. I get a lot of flack for it, but I don’t give a fuckkkkk. I really like his films, and I really like him. Roth brings such a sense of joy to the genre and knows so much about it. It’s refreshing to hear him in interviews when he just nerds out hard about horror flicks. I find him charming, intelligent and I like his crazy films.
So, needless to say, I was very excited to see him tackle a kids movie. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an actually scary horror film for children. The Goosebumps movies did a great job, starring the same lead in this one, Jack Black. But Roth brought a sense of wonder and fear into this flick that is missing from most kids horror films these days.
Firstly, what’s this movie all about?
In 1955, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is a 10 year old boy who has just lost both his parents to a car accident. He’s been sent to live with his eccentric uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). When Lewis arrives at the majestic house that Jonathan calls home, he quickly realizes there’s something more going on. Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a close friend of Jonathan and a neighbor. She’s a beautiful woman with an affinity for purple. When Lewis arrives for the first time, Florence appears out of a clock. Which isn’t really that strange when you realize the entire house is filled with clocks of all shapes and sizes.
Jonathan quickly makes it clear he’s not going to parent Lewis. Lewis is free to eat what he wants, go to bed when he wants, and live his life.
But Lewis has to attend school and he struggles immediately to fit in. He’s an odd kid who wears goggles all the time and is constantly eating cookies. Luckily, one kid named Tarby (Sunny Suljic) takes it easy on him.
Soon Lewis discovers that the strange going-on’s in the house is because Florence and Jonathan are a witch and a warlock! There used to be a powerful warlock who lived in the house before, but he did some terrible magic and died. His name was Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Before he died he buried a clock in the house. Florence and Jonathan are trying to find that clock before it counts down to one. Jonathan teaches Lewis magic and soon he begins to help with the search.
But unfortunately, one night, when Lewis is trying to impress his new friend Tarby, the two of them accidentally rise Isaac from the dead and chaos quickly ensues.
Here’s what I loved the most about this movie - at the end of it all this is a story about a little weird kid who learns to embrace his weirdness. And I can ALWAYS get behind that. There were so many scenes that hit me right in the heart. Lewis getting picked last in gym class and completely failing at basketball. I was TRIGGERED YA’LL. I remember getting in trouble for refusing to participate in volleyball. The scenes where Lewis is struggling with his identity and trying to fit in just broke my heart. A particular scene where him and Tarby are hanging outside and Tarby tells Lewis he shouldn’t wear his goggles because they make him look weird. And Lewis takes his advice. Ugh. Heartbreaking. I think a lot of us in this field can relate to that.
I also loved the dynamic between Florence and Jonathan. They are absolutely hilarious together and deliver some really catty, wicked dialogue. Gurl, I was taking NOTES. But I love that you can also tell how much they care deeply about each other. They’ve both lost their families in one way or another, and have clung to each other to feel safe. Really a lot of this story is about loss, and how we overcome that emotion in our different ways.
One of the saddest moments for me was when Florence shared how she lost her family during the war. Back in the day she was the strongest witch, but after losing her family she broke. And she never quite figured out how to fix herself inside. Her magic suffered because of it. It isn’t until Lewis and Jonathan are truly in danger, that Florence finally realizes these two are her family now and leaps into gear. Her magic flows with full terrifying force.
The villains are great in this. Isaac and Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry) are a power hungry couple that will stop at nothing. Some of the most terrifying scenes involve these two. One scene in particular is when Lewis rescues his neighbor, only to discover his neighbor is Selena undercover. Her transformation scene is nightmare fuel and I think I would’ve been terrified by that as a child.
The robot doll creepy things? Those were amazing.
And that leads me to the last thing I loved about this film - the effects. One of the special features on this DVD is “Movie Magic” which walks you through some of the making of. The pumpkin gag is a big one - so disgusting! Basically a scene where the trio gets attacked by a tone of pumpkins puking all over them. Watching the mixing of that gross slop and those poor actors going through it had me cackling. That’s what we love about horror! Those gross out gags! And this is a PG version of it and I’m so in love with that.
Overall, I really did love this flick. It’s a great little story with a really important message for all us “black and purple swans” out there. I thought the sets were absolutely gorgeous and it was clear Roth had a VISION for this flick which he was able to get onto the screen. All the acting was spot on. You could tell Black and Blanchett were having a lot of fun when filming this.
For the special features on the DVD - you get an alternate beginning and ending. I watched them with the commentary from Black and Roth. I can easily see why he chose to cut out the beginning he originally had planned. It just revealed far too much of the story right off the back. And the alternate ending was just a little over the top and had a cheesey dance number. So I’m super glad Roth went with the choices he made.
There was also a short about each actor and character called “Warlocks and Witches”. It shows some more behind the scenes footage and sit downs with the actors. And there’s also a gag reel.
“I can give you the right books, teach you the right spells, but that last 1%, that’s up to you.” I think that sums up this film quite well. Roth and the actors bring to the screen a lot of magic, but it’s honestly up to you if you’ll allow yourself to be enchanted or not. And I was genuinely enchanted.