Making magic: Jack Black and Cate Blanchett cast a spell

Jack Black starts in The House With A Clock In Its Wall. Image: Universal Pictures. Jack Black starts in The House With A Clock In Its Wall. Image: Universal Pictures.

Halloween season is off to a solid start with the pleasant surprise of the kid-friendly horror/fantasy/comedy The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Everything about this movie should be working against it. The marketing makes it seem like another expository, self-contained “adventure” that uses the fact that it’s for children to cover up inconsistencies and stale gags. Plus, the presence of Jack Black will automatically draw comparisons to Goosebumps. But with an inspired script based on the novel by John Bellairs, great visuals, a committed cast, and director Eli Roth, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is fun whether you’re a horror pro or a spooky newcomer.

After losing his parents in a car crash, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is taken in by his estranged uncle Jonathan (Black) who lives in a bizarre house full of clocks and seemingly sentient furniture. It doesn’t take long for Lewis to realize his uncle is hiding something from him (and the rumors at school about his house don’t help), so Jonathan and his neighbor/collaborator Florence (Cate Blanchett) bring his nephew into the world of real magic. Yet amidst all the fun, a clock hidden in the walls of the house by Jonathan’s deceased magic partner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), portends something terrible, if only they could find it or figure out the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.

The secret to House’s success is that it truly believes in the value of its storytelling. It is definitely a movie for kids, but it does more than dangle figurative keys in front of their eyes for 90 minutes (though a literal key is crucial to the story). And though this is light entertainment, Roth respects children enough to avoid pandering to them. Children live in the same world as adults—it’s just a matter of perspective—so why not treat the things that scare them with the same regard?

Many movies with superficial similarities to The House with a Clock in Its Walls are bad. This one is good. Its jokes land, its visuals pop, and its story excites. The chemistry between Black and Blanchett is so strong it’s a wonder no one has thought to pair them before. MacLachlan is his breezy best, channeling how Cary Grant might have played an evil wizard. On a personal note, I can’t speak to whether those who grew up reading the book will be satisfied, but I was curious enough to order it the moment I left the theater.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls/ PG, 105 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Playing this week z Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056 z A Simple Favor, Bad Reputation, Crazy Rich Asians, Fahrenheit 11/9, Life Itself, The Predator, White Boy Rick

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213 z A Simple Favor, Alpha, Assassination Nation, Christopher Robin, Crazy Rich Asians, Fahrenheit 11/9, Life Itself, The Meg, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Night School, The Nun, The Predator, Searching, Smallfoot, White Boy Rick, The Wife z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000 z

A Simple Favor, Assassination Nation, Bad Reputation, BlacKkKlansman, Crazy Rich Asians, Dark Money, Fahrenheit 11/9, Juliet, Naked, Life Itself, The Predator, Pick of the Litter, White Boy Rick