The House with a Clock in Its Walls: All These Witches, by Scott Nye
There is a portion of our readership, I trust, for whom the words “Jack Black, Kyle MacLachlan, and Cate Blanchett play witches” will be about all they need to read with regards to this movie. Reader, I’m here to tell you, that’s about all I need too. Eli Roth’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls – adapted from a 1973 novel by the same name – is far from ambitious, mostly hewing to the post-Harry-Potter 21st-century children’s fantasy film template, but its eye for simple pleasures, the modesty of its aims, and a few creative uses for magic keep it lively.
Having just lost his parents in an accident, 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) goes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Unlike most tales of orphan woe, his uncle is a kindly, supportive man who places almost no strictures on his nephew or their home. Turns out, this is because Jonathan is a practicing warlock, and much too preoccupied with magic to attend to the nuances of raising a child. It isn’t long before Lewis discovers this aspect of his uncle’s life, and so, under the tutelage of him and their neighbor Florence (Blanchett), young Lewis goes about learning that old black magic.
Turns out the house used to belong to a bad warlock, as these things tend to go. Though dead, Isaac Izard (MacLachlan) may still linger in the house beyond even the clock he buried in its walls to haunt Jonathan. He just needs someone to nudge him free. And, oh look, here’s a kid who’s new to school and friendless and maybe looking to impress the other kids.
So there’s a lot of to-do about curses and spells and ancient secrets, all of which Black and Blanchett keep terribly lively through friendly banter and a certain bravado in their enunciation. Their arch delivery – excited and alert but never really fearful – sets the tone for the movie, which refuses to let its potentially-world-ending stakes overwhelm its central joy at all there is to discover. Black, often cast very well as a sort of manic schlub, has the ideal theatrical flair to drive this; the sight alone of his rigid posture and protruding stomach casts a certain regality that helps cement why Owen would so quickly admire him. For a kid who feels perpetually out of place, an unusual adult unabashedly defining their space makes quite an impression.
Production designer Jon Hutman fills out the house very well, building a space that seems to fold in on itself as our three heroes roam through secret passageways and knickknack depositories. It gives you just enough to get your bearings, only to throw them off by a creepy room full of old toys or a shape-shifting stained-glass window; the wonder of the place never quite ceases, and despite nearly all the film’s action taking place there, it never feels claustrophobic as a result.
Eli Roth’s participation here will no doubt raise eyebrows among those familiar with his gross-out screamers, though he approaches this more family-friendly material with no less urge to shock. Some images and successions of jump scares may be too much for the younger end of the PG crowd, but but young teens and older kids at our press screening seemed to latch onto it. For that set, this might push them to an edge, but it’s an edge they can handle. Because Black never seems scared, and Owen gradually learns to stand up for himself, a kid can pick up that even spooky creatures can be overcome.