Director Eli Roth famously watched Alien at the inappropriately young age of 8. The movie made him want to be a filmmaker, and it also made him throw up. This story is a good illustration of the tightrope children with an interest in the macabre (and their long-suffering parents) have to walk when deciding what to read or watch. Too much of any element, whether it’s jump scares or gore or chest-bursting xenomorphs, can be traumatizing, even when it doesn’t lead to vomit; too little, and kids sense they’re being condescended to. No writer in the pre–Harry Potter era struck the balance between fear and catharsis better than John Bellairs, whose young adult novels have just enough evil to give a child the shivers, but not quite enough to cause nightmares.
That’s a pretty small target to hit, and nothing in Roth’s earlier work suggested he’d be able to do it. His style usually has more in common with thermonuclear war than sharpshooting. But he must have channeled his 8-year-old self, because Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke’s adaptation of The House With a Clock in its Walls is a bullseye, perfectly balanced between funny and scary. In 20 or 30 years, a crop of up-and-coming horror filmmakers will doubtless talk about the formative experience of seeing it as a kid the way people of a certain age and temperament talk about discovering Bellairs.
Fans of the novel will be happy to hear that its spirit has survived translation to the screen more or less intact, although the plot has been shuffled a little. Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a shy, bookish, recently orphaned 10-year-old, moves to the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan, who is played by Jack Black. The School of Rock rule—no matter how cool your dad is, being raised by Jack Black seems like it’d be a lot more fun—is in full effect here: Jonathan, as it happens, is a warlock, and his best friend Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a powerful magician in her own right. Together, the trio form an improvised family that’s a lot like most families, except for the fact they can all do magic and the other fact that Jonathan’s house contains a doomsday clock left by an earlier tenant (Kyle MacLachlan, having the time of his life) that will destroy all humanity unless they find a way stop it. Typical midcentury Americana, in other words.
The year has been changed from 1948 in the book to 1955 on the screen, although it’s unclear whether that was done to provide a more plausible chronology for a newly added World War II backstory, to move the soundtrack into the rock ’n’ roll era, or to coincide with the brief television run of Captain Midnight, which figures briefly in the plot. Whatever the reason, that seven-year jump has much less impact on the story than casting Vaccaro as Lewis. There’s nothing wrong with Vaccaro’s performance, but in the book Lewis is fat—and Vaccaro is not—and a crucial plot point revolves around him trying to impress a popular kid after being summarily rejected at his new school. To maintain his status as a social outcast, the filmmakers give Lewis the habit of wearing tanker goggles everywhere in imitation of Captain Midnight, which is not at all the same thing. At least he’s still terrible at sports.
Film adaptations don’t owe fidelity to their source material, however, and if Lewis’ weight loss is the price Hollywood demanded in exchange for letting Black, Blanchett, and MacLachlan duke it out on-screen, it was probably worth paying. Black plays his usual well-meaning disaster—the scene in which he casts a spell by marching around the backyard in a fez squawking away on a saxophone is a highlight—and he and Blanchett, who have somehow not made a movie together before this one, should give some serious thought to collaborating on a screwball comedy. MacLachlan’s villain is closer to the scene-chewing he did in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than the concentrated menace of Mr. C in Twin Peaks, but on the other hand, he’s playing an evil wizard whose life’s work was turning a Victorian mansion into a doomsday clock, so a little scene-chewing is probably in order.
Which brings us back to the all-important balance between showing too much horror and not showing enough. MacLachlan’s campy performance is center stage, and depending on your tolerance for the bloodshot eyes of the recently resurrected, not really all that frightening. The House With a Clock in Its Walls seems to have been designed as a kid’s guide to horror movies, introducing the audience to genre tropes in innocuous ways. You can’t have a lot of body horror in a kid’s movie, but you can have a topiary griffin who torrentially evacuates dead leaves across the backyard in a beautiful, disgusting arc. Blood and guts are mostly out, but a patch of evil pumpkins vomiting neon orange goo is allowed. And for every brightly colored simulacrum, there’s something darker and realer lurking in the shadows, like the throwaway glimpse of a number tattooed on Mrs. Zimmerman’s wrist. (This is also probably the first kid’s movie with an allusion to Slaughterhouse-Five.) Pulling on the darker threads is not essential to appreciating the film. A child who doesn’t suss out Zimmerman’s backstory, for instance, won’t miss anything except the tasteless connotations of a scene in which Zimmerman kills a bunch of baddies by magic-gassing them, which would probably be an improvement. But in film as in life, the more you know, the deeper the horror.
Still, the most refreshing thing about The House With a Clock in Its Walls is that its overstuffed frames are packed with details that are not allusions to some other corner of an integrated media universe. Mrs. Zimmerman namechecks the Alberti cipher and Enochian glyphs; Jonathan has a collection of fascinatingly creepy vintage automatons, none of which seem destined for a spinoff film; and even the Easter eggs that come from plot details of the novel that didn’t make it to the screen—the Hand of Glory on Jonathan’s bookshelf, for instance—have their own life outside the hermetic world of intellectual property. There’s one glaring exception, a Nick Fury–style introduction of Rose Rita Pottinger, a character who eventually starred in her own Bellairs novel—but it’s more of a misstep than an animating principle. If superhero films are octopi, relentlessly pulling viewers back into the soft embrace of their cinematic universe, The House With a Clock in Its Walls is more like an explosion: It will send some of its young viewers spinning off on one of a million possible avenues of exploration, most of them macabre, none of them monetized. I can’t wait to see the movies those kids make.
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