September 28, 2018 – While this movie is being compared to Goosebumps, partly because of the presence of Jack Black in both films, it is more along the lines of the darker Harry Potter films, filled with hate, loss, anguish and villains with apocalyptic ambitions.
A young orphaned boy, Lewis Barnavelt (played by Owen Vaccaro of “Daddy's Home”) is taken in by his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a haunted house in Michigan. A powerful witch, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett of “Ocean's Eight”) lives next door. Florence comes and goes as she pleases, spending a lot of time in Barnavelt's house.
This house was formerly owned by the evil warlock and witch Isaac and Selena Izard (Kyle MacLachlan and Renée Elise Goldsberry). Like Hogwarts Castle, it is a dangerous place for a child. Danger, and wonder lurk together in its haunted walls and closets, including a hidden clock, which, if unleashed, could bring about the end of the world.
Lewis soon learns that his uncle is a warlock who is trying to find the hidden clock and put an end to the danger it poses. Lewis, being the studious, nerdy sort begs his uncle to teach him magic, and he soon becomes adept. Desperate for friends at school, he seeks to impress a classmate with a dangerous magic spell. In doing so, he accidentally puts the whole world in danger when Isaac Izard rises from his grave, intent on activating his terrible magical clock.
This story is more about the personal journeys of the three main characters, however. Each of them are emotionally wounded. Lewis is an orphan who misses his parents. Florence, a Holocaust survivor, mourns her murdered child and husband. Jonathan is an outcast disowned by his family for his pursuit of magic. During the course of the movie, each of these characters must deal with their personal demons. At the same time, each must summon up the courage to deal with the dangers bearing down upon them.
Everybody needs a family, and everybody needs to find their own place in the world. Lewis embarks on this spiritual journey with the kind of courage we all wish we had. He is brave and vulnerable at the same time.
A bit of my own childhood came back to haunt me when the old “Captain Midnight” TV show was mentioned in the movie (actors Richard Webb and Sid Melton, who starred in that series, had long careers in both TV and movies). I had watched that same show (later renamed “Jet Jackson, Flying Commando”) and I also possessed an item similar to one of the show's promotional items that plays a role in the movie's plot. This movie is set in the mid-1950s.
This story is a combination of juvenile supernatural wizardry, combined with a gothic horror story. It is probably not well-suited for young children, since there are some very creepy scenes in it, along with adult level emotional trauma in its content. In a way, the story is a throwback to the original dark themes found in some stories in Grimm's Fairy Tales.
This film hangs on the performances of the three main characters, and they deliver. This movie represents a very delicate balance between dread and comedy, handled nicely by director Eli Roth (“Death Wish”). The story is based on the novel of the same name by John Bellairs (the house in the movie was inspired by the Cronin House in Marshall, Michigan, the home town of Bellairs). This film rates a C+.
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