“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” Is a Wickedly Fun Movie for Fall

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Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro and Jack Black in “The House With a Clock in Its Walls.” Image © DreamWorks.

Eli Roth’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls was the top box office draw this past opening weekend, and although it isn’t a perfect film, it can be the perfect movie for a fall family adventure this season.

Roth did an excellent job with his first attempt at a gore-free family fare, in that this PG-rated fantasy managed to remain genuinely scary in places, but still laced with plenty of silliness and fun.

Based on the 1973 John Bellairs children’s book, the recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a massive mansion in the town of New Zebedee. After learning his uncle and his neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) are a warlock and witch, he begins to discover the secrets behind the mansion itself, including the creepy clock hidden within its walls by previous owner, Isaac Izard (Kyle McLaughlan). What does this clock do? Something horrible, if Lewis, Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman can’t stop it.

The story keeps the spirit and style of the Bellairs book alive, but veers from the plot in several places, including jumping the setting from the 1940s to the 1950s. The final conflict seemed a little rushed, but in all fairness the book’s ending was pretty abrupt as well. The main criticism I had was where Roth went for quick laughs or jump scares at times when the eerie, subtle nature of the original story could have worked just fine. I couldn’t help feeling with book being a slim-enough read, sticking closer to the plot would have made it a less-awkward ride.

However, the mansion itself was gorgeously made, and filled with haunting and colorful eye candy. It sets off the same beautiful, yet creepy tone Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction has, making it appealing for both kids and adults. Also, Roth’s love of the 1980s Amblin Pictures was evident throughout, and that added to making this a thoroughly enjoyable watch. Black and Blanchett delivered very energetic performances, and their back-and-forth barbs were one element of the film that translated from the page to the screen well.

The movie is scary in places, so not every young viewer might be ready for it. If movies like Gremlins or Goosebumps are too frightening for your kids, they might want to pass this one up as well.

One of the best things about this movie is it will get viewers excited for the harvests and haunts of autumn and the Halloween season. For those planning on seeing The House With a Clock in Its Walls soon, here are some ways to turn this movie outing into a full season of fall activities:

• If you can, see the movie on IMAX, as it opens with  Michael Jackson 1982 video for his mega hit Thriller, first time in IMAX form. The 14-minute music video was directed by John Landis with visual effects by Rick Baker, and is so far the only music video selected to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

house thriller
The IMAX version of the film comes with the iconic Michael Jackson video, “Thriller,” for the first time in IMAX format. Images © Dreamworks and Sony Music

• The film’s opening and closing credits give a nod to the drawings of artist Edward Gorey, who contributed his sketchy weird artwork to the book. Look up some of his more famous works, like the images in the opening credits of PBS’s Mystery, and draw a favorite fantasy character or monster in his style.

• Visit a pumpkin patch or stand, and get a jump start on the fall and Halloween decorating.

• Create some crafts or decorations with a steampunk and clockwork appeal, or make some steampunk or retro goggles like Lewis’s “Captain Midnight” glasses.

• Pick up some cheap magic tricks, or learn some simple sleight-of-hand card tricks to impress your friends.

• Swing by a bookstore and pick up the book that inspired the movie, or another scary family-friendly tale. Read it as a family throughout the month of October.

Artist Edward Gorey did the illustrations for the John Bellairs book on which “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is based. The movie’s titles and end credits are done in his style. Book images © Puffin Books

• Go to dinner at a ’50s style dinner, and enjoy a chocolate shake, or grab some Ovaltine, and make some shakes at home. Ovaltine has been around since 1904, and is still available in stores.

• Schedule another family movie night to watch one of the Amblin or Spielberg favorites from the 1980s that inspired Roth. Some good Halloween picks may include Gremlins, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Homes, and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. For teens, try Arachnophobia or Poltergeist (the original).

• If you have teenagers, find some of the more light-hearted standalone episodes of the WB series Supernatural. Series creator Eric Kripke wrote the screenplay for The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and has said the book was a big inspiration for his work. I suggest the recent “ScoobyNatural” crossover episode from Season 13.

• Bake some chocolate chip cookies (with or without nuts), warm up some hot cocoa, and have a family card game night of poker or other games using just a plain old 52-card deck. The International Playing-Card Society estimated in an article from 2006 there may be between 1,000 and 10,000 card games to play. There’s likely even more now, so take your pick.

The House With A Clock in Its Walls opened Sept. 21, but don’t wait too long to see it. The clock is quickly counting down to Halloween.

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