Mission Lab

‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ isn’t kid-friendly (and it should be rated PG-13)

September 21st, 2018 / By: Michael Foust / comments

‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ isn’t kid-friendly (and it should be rated PG-13)

Lewis Barnavelt is a young, awkward boy who lacks a home. He could use some courage and a friend, too.

His parents died in a car crash, so he was sent to live with his uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt, who resides in an old, creepy-looking mansion in New Zebedee, Mich., with a platonic female assistant named Florence and hundreds of loud, ticking clocks.

The arrangement has its perks. There’s no bedtime and no bathtime, and Lewis can eat as many cookies as he craves. But lurking beneath these benefits is a truth that even his uncle can’t hide: The house is, well, haunted. Chairs move. Paintings dance. The shrubbery comes to live.

Initially, this seems to be a good thing. Jonathan is a friendly warlock—we are told—who fights evil and tries to keep the bad spirits away. Florence is a friendly witch. Sure, the house “moves,” but it does so only because it’s happy to have Lewis around.

Then things start get scary. Lewis learns of a clock hidden in the house that could wipe out humanity if the right spell is cast. It was put there by someone named Isaac Izard, an evil warlock who is dead but could return someday to turn it loose.

It’s a story that would make most children run away and find a new home. Lewis, though, isn’t an ordinary kid.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (PG) opens this weekend, starring Jack Black (Nacho Libre, Kung Fu Panda) as Uncle Jonathan, Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as Florence, and Owen Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home) as Lewis.

The movie is set in 1955 and follows Lewis as he discovers his uncle’s powers and begins learning how to cast spells himself, under his uncle’s tutelage. It is based on a juvenile fiction book by John Bellairs. Although a lot of the frightening stuff in the film is kid-oriented and played for laughs, much of it is not. Some of the spells require blood. One of the magic books spotlights necromancy – communicating with the dead. A flashback scene shows a character interacting with a demon. The occult theme is prominent. We see pentagrams.

By the time the credits rolled, I was wondering: How did this slide by with only a PG rating? It may be intense as the PG-13 Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children.

Let’s examine the details.  

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)

Violence/Disturbing

Moderate/extreme. Jonathan Barnavelt lives in a haunted house, so disturbing images—including skeletons and pictures related to the occult—are plentiful. Several times, Lewis walks around the house with a flashlight at night, trying to find the loud ticking noise. There are several jump-scare moments. Later, we see a man talking to a red-eyed, demon-looking man in a forest. A spell is cast in a cemetery. A dead man is raised to life, although bugs still crawl on his hands and he looks like a zombie. Communicating with the dead is discussed, as is murder and the “prince of hell.” A spell involves a pentagram and a drop of blood. A woman morphs from one person to another person by twitching her head in a possessed-like fashion. The final 30 minutes are quite intense, with items in the house turning on Jonathan and Lewis and attacking them.    

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Minimal. A zombie kisses a woman. She wears a dress displaying cleavage.

Coarse Language

Minimal. About eight coarse words: d—n (4), misuse of “God” (2), OMG (1), misuse of “Lord,” h—l (1). 

Other Positive Elements

Jonathan and Florence care for Lewis and do their best to protect him – even telling him to go live with someone else.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

A magic 8-type ball plays a prominent role. Jonathan and Florence call one another names throughout the movie. (Example: He calls her “old hag.”) A shrubbery shaped like a winged lion poops several times.

Life Lessons

The most innocent (and perhaps most entertaining) parts of the movie take place when Lewis is at school. At first, he is bullied, but then he befriends a boy running for class president. But as soon as that boy is elected, he stops hanging around Lewis because he no longer needs his vote. Later, Lewis makes a true friend. Several lessons are learned in this interaction. Among them: the cost of bullying and what it means to be a true friend. Lewis also learns a valuable lesson about peer pressure and trying to impress others.    

Worldview

Perhaps you already guessed that The House With a Clock in Its Walls is full of witches and warlocks, but absent God. And you’d be right. It’s a worldview of superstition and the occult. (Jack-o-lanterns and iron ward off evil spirits.) Like many modern-day films involving magic, the story tells us there are good witches and warlocks and bad witches and warlocks. This messed-up worldview goes a step further by inferring that “good” magic spells originate from within the warlock but “bad” magic spells get their power from hell.

Of course, most moviegoers won’t consider the biblical side of things, but as Christians, we should. There is no “good magic” in the Bible. There’s only an all-powerful God, who created and reigns over the universe. The Bible condemns magic (Deuteronomy 18:10-16; Leviticus 19:26, 31, 20:27; Acts 13:8-10) Yes, there is a Satan and there are demons, but their power is limited.

Still, movie buffs can use The House With a Clock in Its Walls (and movies like it) as a portal with unbelievers to discuss the realities of a heaven and hell, a supernatural world, and God’s victory over evil. As Christians, we have no reason to “be scared.” God has won.

What Works

The scenes at school. Some of the humor. I (somewhat) enjoyed about two-thirds of the film. After that, the scare factor crossed from PG into PG-13 territory. Speaking of that …

What Doesn’t

The debate within Christianity over horror films is an interesting one. I am among those who think thrillers/horror movies, when done rightly, can convey biblical themes. (See A Quiet Place, for example.) But movies that glorify evil do just the opposite.

I’m not sure where The House With a Clock in Its Walls falls in this discussion. It has a happy ending. It is among the genre of so-called kid-friendly horror. Parents, though, might want to hear from screenwriter and producer Eric Kripke, who said that the movie “is sort of the gateway” to children “being scary-movie fans.”

“I think this’ll be your kids’ first scary movie,” Kripke said.

It’s also worth noting that the director, Eli Roth, has helmed multiple R-rated horror movies. This one is far from an R film, but it’s not for little kids, either. Parents who have to sing their children back to sleep at 1:00 a.m. may wish they had never gone.  

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think Christians should watch thrillers/horror movies? If so, when? What are the parameters?

2. Florence says that all a person needs in the world is one great friend. Do you agree?

3. What does the Bible say about magic?

4. Have you ever seen someone bullied like Lewis was? What did you do? What should you do? Have you ever been bullied?

Entertainment rating: 2 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language.