Retro-magical 'House with a Clock in Its Walls' is a family-friendly adventure for Halloween

Straight-faced and straight-laced Lewis is a traumatized young orphan, sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan, a warlock, amidst a hotbed of sorcery. Sounds familiar — but Lewis is no Harry Potter, and Jonathan’s creepy old mansion in New Zebedee, Mich., is no Hogwarts. The uncle is a magic-school dropout, and the timid nephew has no magical aspirations or equipment, except his old Mattel 8-ball fortuneteller — a retro-diviner, indeed.

“The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” it seems, was previously occupied by twisted wizard Isaac Izard, whose goal was to bring about the apocalypse so that he could reset time and space with himself in charge. To that end, he devised a mystical clock that’s ticking down inexorably to doomsday. The old wacko died before perfecting it but not before hiding it someplace in the clock-filled house where Jonathan (Jack Black) and Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) now live.

Can they find and defuse the awful thing before it detonates the deluge?

Director Eli Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke have fashioned this spooky, amusing, family-friendly fantasy from the novel by John Bellairs in time for Halloween. It features fine if low-tech special effects — more charmingly electrical than dazzlingly digital — and thus primitive, by Potter franchise standards. You’ll enjoy ships that sail and cowboys who lasso in their stained-glass windows.

'The House With a Clock in Its Walls'



  • Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro.
  • Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including sorcery, scary images, rude humor and language.

You might (or might not) likewise appreciate the scatological yuks from a topiary griffin with deadly diarrhea (“Use the litter box!” Jonathan yells at him) and an anthropomorphic armchair that faithfully follows him around until ordered to “Stay!”

Mr. Black’s trademark exuberance is infectious. He hams it up with his Shriner’s hat and saxophone, while Cate Blanchett as his witch friend Florence serves nicely, with her deadpan delivery, as his straight woman. Kyle MacLachlan as Izard and Renee Elise Goldsberry as his sinister wife are effective villains, while neighbor Colleen Camp and her lovely dog Marmalade provide broad laughs.

The wickedly entertaining if politically incorrect scenes include one in which nerdy Lewis is the last to be picked for a gym class basketball team — even after a boy on crutches.

Though handsomely filmed in Quebec, this “Clock” suffers from what one wag calls post-Potter fatigue: There’s nothing much here, visual or thematic, that hasn’t been seen before. But that’s hardly its fault. This tale came way earlier (1973) than Harry (1997) and might even have been an actual or subliminal J.K. Rowling inspiration. It was originally written as a contemporary adult fantasy, but when a publisher suggested rewriting it for young readers, Mr. Bellairs complied — and wound up writing 14 more young-adult gothic thrillers, most of them illustrated by the great Edward Gorey.

FYI, regarding John Bellairs (1938-91): His first published work, “St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies,” was a delightful collection of vignettes about Catholicism. The title story is a pseudo-hagiography of St. Fidgeta (“Quieter of the giggly, steadier of the wiggly”), patron saint of nervous children: Born in A.D. 482, she was martyred at age 7 by her teacher, the pagan skeptic Putricordes, who — outraged by her unrelenting piety — slapped her to death.

This script lacks the audacious sparkle of that, but it’s at its best when the bickersome Mr. Black and Ms. Blanchett trade insults about their begone heydays. “You should’ve seen me before,” says Cate, “when I melted Salvador Dali’s watch right off his wrist!”

No laughs, at the screening, for that dated joke. Ditto for one about the Ovaltine decoder device — except from me. (Am I the only one left who still likes and buys Ovaltine?) On the other hand, there was a lot of spontaneous applause at the end of that packed preview.

Kiddie Caution: Small fry under 10 may wail. In addition to jump scares, there’s some heavy morphing and head-spinning, akin to Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist,” as well as necromantic waking and raising of the dead (complete with bugs). The piece de resistance is the attack of the vomiting pumpkins — both funny and fearful.

“House With a Clock in Its Walls,” in the end, occupies an unfortunate sort of unhappy medium: too scary for little kids, not scary enough for older ones, too clever for children, not quite clever enough for their parents. A bit too deja vu — through no fault of its own — for both.

Worth seeing, nevertheless.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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