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“The House with a Clock in its Walls” steps over the occult line

Jack Black is fantastic, but 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.

Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro and Jack Black star in a scene from the movie "The House With a Clock in Its Walls." (CNS photo/Universal)

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.

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About Nick Olszyk 185 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.


  1. I’m not a Christian, but I agree. The imagery is unsuitable for children and a timewaster for adults. The one interesting thread in the film is the relationship of the boy with his schoolmates. But all in all, I’d like my two hours back.

  2. Well written post. Personally I was not very much interested in watching hollywood movies but your post increases my interest about it. Definitely will try once to watch this movie if i get a time.

  3. I have seen parts of the Harry Potter series but somehow I found the imagery used in this film (apparently aimed for children) to be quite unsettling. The movie itself was a waste of talents.

  4. I knew I wasn’t the only one disturbed by the demonic symbols and images presented in the film. Definitely not suitable for children and a highly unsettling watch for adults. How very disappointing, considering Jack Black and Cate Blanchett delivered as usual, performance-wise. All in all, not something I would recommend to anyone. :/ Great review, Mr. Olszyk.

  5. Real magic, as opposed to stage magic, is the freeing of one’s self from the demands of the material plane. When the bible mentions sorcery and witchcraft it is talking about a misuse of magic, for instance, to get out of chores, or get something not earned, or avoid the consequences of immoral behavior. The practice of occultism is frowned upon by religious institutions also because it is potentially dangerous and completely unregulated. That said, if you’re looking for a real world example of magic, all you have to do is attend a Catholic event. Costumes, chants, incense, the invoking of angels etc. are all part of a true “warlock’s” curriculum.

    • The reason the Bible condemned occultism is that you are invoking demonic deities inviting hem into you’re lives giving them a foot hold they are in complete contrast to Christ’s commands and philosophy. You can serve the God and satan .

  6. The sarcophagus of the main antagonist “Issac” is adorned with and ultra stretched upside down penticle with an upside down cross in us center and humanoid goat eyes outside the outer edges forming Thelemic and O.T.O. occult symbols formed and gleaned from ancient Sumerian and Molech ideologies that amalgamate modern satanism and real satanism and Luciferian mythology. Roth knew exactly what he was doing imposing this upon his audience and the child sacrifice and other things I will not speak of because free speech is banned and people are completely weak, propagandized and whipped into out and out lies and submission to evil and the lawful wholesale slaughter of the innocent, especially in modern day Catholicism. The brainwashing of Christians in general is utterly laudable, reprehensible and disgusting. It makes a real man want to vomit how incredibly dead these pharisees truly are to society, period.

  7. Comment has to await moderation. I’ll tell you I’m not attacking ther catholic church but it and all other church goers who say they approve of such terrible and reprehensible demonic movies like these without seeing the obvious. They need to be educated and people need freedom of speech everywhere, even here.

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