Movie Review: ‘THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS’ a family-friendly spooky tale


Connor Bynum // Film Critic


Rated PG, 104 minutes.
Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Jack BlackCate BlanchettOwen VaccaroKyle MacLachlanRenée Elise GoldsberryColleen Camp and Sunny Suljic

As the 2018 summer blockbuster season comes to an end, we enter into that brief window before awards season where horror films take over our theaters. Most of these are usually targeted at adult audiences. But every so often something geared more towards the kiddos comes out to mix things up, while still being sure to throw in a few good scares in the process. This is probably the best way to describe THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS.

Based off the first in a series of popular children’s books, HOUSE takes place in 1950s post-WWII America. Ten year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), after recently losing both of his parents in a car crash, moves to a new town to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Naturally being a strange man, it’s only fitting that Jonathan lives in an even stranger house filled with hundreds of clocks. Accompanying Jonathan is the equally strange Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a close friend who insists there’s nothing “kissy faced” going on between the two of them. It isn’t long before Lewis discovers the Jonathan is a warlock, Florence is a witch, and the mysterious house has a magical clock hidden somewhere within its walls ticking ever closer to the end of the world. With Lewis being self-proclaimed weird kid, he connects with Jonathan and Florence and begs them to teach how to become a warlock himself so he can help find this secret clock before it’s too late.

10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, center) gets magical life lessons from his uncle (Jack Black) and their witchy neighbor (Cate Blanchett) in “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” (Sept. 21). (Photo: QUANTRELL D. COLBERT)

Owen Vaccaro’s performance as Lewis can feel a little stilted at times, with crying scenes in particular can feel rather forced. But to be fair, he’s about on par with Daniel Radcliffe’s debut as Harry Potter, so I’m in no rush to be too harsh on the kid. Jack Black appears to be mostly in autopilot as Uncle Jonathan, but he’s still perfectly watchable for the most part. However, Cate Blanchett is easily the best part of the film. Her dynamic with Black is believable, sweet, and endearing. She often is given very little to work with in terms of developing her part, but nevertheless is able to make Florence feel like the most three-dimensional character on screen by the end.

Upon discovering that this film was directed by acclaimed slasher filmmaker Eli Roth (HOSTEL), I was genuinely intrigued. Under such a director, the film certainly doesn’t shy away from some pretty creepy moments and even a few genuine scares. Yet, the scary bits are contrasted with much more kid friendly humor such as a magical Griffin shrubbery pooping out mulch onto human characters. A strange mix to be sure, but it feels as though Roth was intending his film to ease younger viewers into the horror genre and he mostly succeeds in this goal.

While the trailers may showcase more of the film’s wacky family friendly hijinks (Jack Black covered in pumpkin guts), there’s actually a fair amount of depth to be found if you’re willing to look for it. Without giving away too much of the plot, there’s a clever reference to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden and even subtle clues that imply one of the characters is most likely a Holocaust survivor. These details are likely to go right over the heads of younger viewers, but parents may be pleasantly surprised by the maturity written between the lines. That being said, some of the darker subject matter on display isn’t always so subtle. Parents of younger children may not be too pleased by some of the more satanic practices and imagery in the film. However, these moments are quite brief and are never painted in a positive light.

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a relatively kid friendly Halloween flick with more heart (and scares) than one might expect. It aims for a happy medium between family comedy and haunted house horror, and, to its credit, it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do.

Grade: B-

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALL opens nationwide on Friday (9/21).

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.