Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Gothic Nostalgia

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett in The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Universal Pictures)

The novelist John Bellairs, whose books were one of the great pleasures of my youth, wrote young-adult thrillers that could be usefully described as Middle American Catholic Gothic. Set in Minnesota and Michigan and Massa­chusetts in the 1950s, they featured wimpy nerdy heroes and tomboy heroines hanging out in weird old houses with crotchety professors and magician uncles, and plots in which some hodgepodge of ancient and medieval arcana was required to preempt the world-ending plans of wicked wizards and their demonic familiars.

As Eve Tushnet wrote in a recent essay on Bellairs for The University Bookman, the books were at once “creepy and cozy,” blending Eisenhower-era nostalgia and apocalyptic plot engines, using Catholic tradition superstitiously as a repository of white magic, and eschewing any kind of contemporary moral preachiness, any temptation to “make a point.” (Save, of course, the point that making bargains with demonic powers in order to hasten Ragnarok is ill advised.)

That makes them the sort of stories ripe for a disastrous updating at the hands of contemporary Hollywood. I expected the new adaptation of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Bellairs’s most famous novel, to resemble the recent flop adaption of A Wrinkle in Time, which ditched Madeleine L’Engle’s ramshackle New England setting for upper-class, multicultural California, purged the book’s Christian themes in favor of an Oprahfied pantheism, and built an empty blockbuster with lots of bland affirmation and none of L’Engle’s prickly Protestant genius.

But I was wrong; the new House adaptation is impressively faithful to the spirit of its source material, from its Ovaltine-and-Studebakers historical setting — the fictional New Zebedee, Mich. — to its firm commitment to Bellairs’s quirky-Gothic style. It probably helps that the model for this movie is horror — a low-budget, no-frills, and conservative genre — rather than big-budget fantasy-adventure; indeed, the director is none other than Eli Roth, famous for making exploitation-horror movies so pornographic in their violence that while reviewing one of them I once expressed a desire to punch him in the face.

But now Roth has kids, and he’s decided to use his powers for the good — and so instead of interchangeable young tourists getting decapitated for sport, he gives us Jack Black interpreting apocalyptic blueprints using the Ovaltine decoder, and Cate Blanchett machine-gunning demonic pumpkins with a magical umbrella.

Blanchett and Black play the insult-swapping Platonic odd couple — a warlock and a next-door-neighbor witch — to whom young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is dispatched following the untimely death of his parents. Black’s Uncle Jonathan lives in a grand old Victorian mansion that is obviously haunted 16 ways from Sunday, but in a silly kid-friendly way at first, with a friendly dog-like armchair, a flatulent hedge lion, and an extraordinary number of clocks. Only gradually do we learn that Lewis’s uncle is effectively house-sitting for a deceased dark wizard, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, perfect), in order to scour the manse for a hidden magical clock that’s ticking down to . . . well, something very bad. 

Unfortunately for the fate of the universe, Lewis is a bit of what the kids would call a spazz — not plump as in the books, but unathletic and goggle-wearing and uncool — and he’s desperate for the friendship of his new school’s alpha male, Tarby (Sunny Suljic). So he shows off by swiping a certain book from behind his uncle’s lock and key and carrying it off to a cemetery to perform a little light necromancy for Tarby’s edification — which, all too predictably, brings the not so dearly departed Izard calling and makes the clock situation go from dangerous to dire.

An apocalypse almost conjured because of an uncool kid’s grammar-school social unease is vintage Bellairs, and so is much else about the movie — the snap-crack-pop of the witch-and-warlock repartee, the late appearance of a demon out of the Book of Enoch, the elaborate, sumptuous Victoriana of the haunted house.

What doesn’t quite work is the star power of Blanchett and Black — he does too much mugging, she’s too regal for a character who’s supposed to feel like an immigrant eccentric — relative to the somewhat weaker candlepower of Vaccaro’s Lewis, who is a sweet and unassuming presence but not quite up to competing with his co-stars.

There is also just a bit too much of the kind of moralistic messaging — about families and tragedies and the power of love — that Bellairs’s books eschew, and also a little too much of a Hollywood sheen on everything, that glossy magazine-pictorial quality in which colors are bright and everything is clean and the kids’ skin looks like it’s been smoothed out for a photo shoot. This visual style is one thing House has in common with A Wrinkle in Time, and it’s unfortunate: Real childhood does not look like this, and in the gothic form especially there should be much more dirt and grime, more pimples and body fat, more shadows and cobwebs and dust than find their way into this version of New Zebedee.

But credit where it’s due: In an age of bloated maladaptions Roth has managed to make an adaptation that’s intimate, entertaining, and mostly faithful. No punches this time; for this one, I’d gladly shake his hand.

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