MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: 1 out of 5 reels
It’s not a good sign of things to come when your children’s movie is directed by infamous torture-porn filmmaker Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel, Death Wish). Hopefully, this will be his last attempt at the genre. The House with a Clock in its Walls contains many bad elements besides its ungainly name, but chief among them is an employment of pagan-fantasy imagery that smells far too strongly of the real thing. This is a film that nearly everyone, especially children, should avoid. Which is a pity, because Jack Black was fantastic.
Lewis Barnavelt (newcomer Owen Vaccaro) is a smart, lonely boy who was recently orphaned after his parents died suddenly, sending him to live with an uncle far away. This sound familiar because it’s the same tragic backstory of Harry Potter, and echoes of that much better series are felt throughout the film. (Although, in fairness, the source material—John Bellairs’s 1973 juvenile mystery fiction novel—predates Rowling by two decades.) Lewis’ uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) turns out to be a warlock. Rather than being struck by terror, the young lad pleads to be taught in the ways of sorcery. As one can imagine, this mostly involves using levitation and telekinesis to skirt his chores.
But there is something sinister going on (besides the random skulls) throughout the house. Night after night, Lewis catches his uncle and neighbor Florence (a powerful but impotent witch) listening to the sound of a clock coming from inside the walls of the house, attempting to locate the source. Apparently, this phantom clock was left behind by the previous owner, an “evil warlock” who died after Jonathan interrupted him while casting a spell. No one knows what will happen when the clock gets down to its last chime, but “it can’t be good.”
From the days of the early Church, Christians have understood that paganism—while tainted by sin—often used universal archetypes that alluded to or pointed to truth. Thus, much pagan imagery has been employed in Catholic literature and art, from St. John to Michelangelo to Tolkien, and it is still useful in that regard. The danger comes in presenting these ideas as acceptable reality rather than symbolic representation.
Harry Potter may straddle the line, but House goes well beyond it. This includes many representations of the occult, culminating in Lewis—a ten-year-old boy—using his own blood and a pentagram to perform a necromantic spell, raising the dead simply to impress a friend! Even though this action is clearly shown to be a mistake, the portrayal alone is unnerving.
It doesn’t help that House is so dreadfully awful. The special effects and digital imagery are terrible, the acting is hammy, and the attempts at themes of loss and grief are handled clumsily at best. It also rips off so many other common film tropes that it feels at times more like a clip show than an original story. The single saving grace—the reason for the single reel rating—is Jack Black. I am not a fan of his early work, finding even School of Rock annoying. However, starting with Tropic Thunder, he has really come into his own as a comic actor. His performance in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was one of the best of last year.
In the end, The House with a Clock in its Walls is a film that appeals to no one, being both too frightening (for children) and too boring (for adults) at the same time. Its portrayal of paganism is quite problematic, thus making it unacceptable entertainment for children during their formative years of religious education. With so many options available, this is an easy pass.