‘The House With a Clock in Its Walls’ Is Filled With Dark Secrets, Black Magic and a Need for Family

All those film geeks who grew up wanting to make movies like Steven Spielberg are now old enough to make movies like Steven Spielberg. Along the way, they’ve picked up other influences, especially Tim Burton and Harry Potter. It’d be easy to throw “The House With a Clock in Its Walls into that same pot with “Stranger Things” and “Super 8” but it wouldn’t do it justice. Certainly there is a mixture of all the above influences, but any movie this quirky cannot be accused of being a mere knockoff. “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” boasts strange charms of its own.

It’s 1955 and Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is tragically orphaned at the age of ten and sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who is not the best warlock but not the worst. Jonathan’s neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), is his partner in all things magical while their personal relationship is strictly love/hate. Their relationship is so bad they cannot say anything nice to each other. Any interaction is preceded by a string of vicious invectives.

Uncle Jonathan’s mansion is of the haunted Victorian style, populated with a plethora of clocks and creepy mannequins straight from the stop-motion animations of the Quay Brothers. The rest of the interior decoration is straight out of the Addams Family. There is the friendly house pet (a sofa chair) and a stained glass window that ominously predicts the future. Lewis quickly considers escaping to someplace a little more main stream.

Visitations from Lewis’ dead mother (Lorenza Izzo) doesn’t help, especially when she speaks mysteriously of a book and a key and warns him that Uncle Jonathan is not what he seems. Lewis grows more suspicious when Jonathan shows him a large cabinet and warns that he is never to open it.

Lewis looks to school for normalcy. When the kid on crutches is chosen ahead of Lewis for a basketball team, Lewis knows his prospects are bleak. But when the school jock Tarby (Sunny Suljic) takes an interest in Lewis, Lewis grows desperate to stay in the popular kid’s satellite. He even goes so far as to betray his uncle, open the forbidden cabinet and do other stupid things like raise the wrong person from the dead.

All of which puts Lewis, his uncle and neighbor Florence on a collision course with a crazy plot devised by a crazier warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlin) and his killer wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry) to destroy all humanity.

There’s weirdness in this movie that Steven Spielberg could have never imagined. Just the pairing of Jack Black with Cate Blanchett is enough to add a whole fascinating dimension to the cast. One can look at Jack Black transformed in to a disturbing baby body with his big bearded head and realize that this movie can get odd in ways that perhaps only Tim Burton has dreamed of.

“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is directed by Eli Roth. It’s not graceful but it can be fearless. The production design by Jon Hutman evokes all the right moods. It is beautiful to study and warmly photographed by Rogier Stoffers.

“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is scary and macabre, definitely too scary for the very young. But for everyone else, it is an entertaining but quirky tale of orphaned boys, family and magic.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls opens Sept. 19 in theaters nationwide.