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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The House with a Clock in Its Walls is based on John Bellairs' same-named 1970s children's book. It marks the first younger-skewing spookfest from Hostel director Eli Roth, who considers this film a "starter horror movie" for families and tweens. But it's definitely a "know your kid" situation: The movie is very creepy, and there are a few scenes that are downright scary/jump-worthy for kids. There are scary toys/dolls, ominous sounds, a demon, witchcraft, necromancy, and the occult, but (spoiler alert!) the "good" witch and warlocks ultimately prevail against the forces of evil that are threatening them and the world. In one scene, a boy hurts kid protagonist Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), but later Lewis magically makes a basketball hit two bullies during a game. "Damn" and "hell" are used a couple of times, and several mild insults are traded by two adult friends (Jack Black and Cate Blanchett). A married couple kisses. Parents who enjoy horror movies will appreciate this introduction to the genre, but families with sensitive kids should think about whether they're up for even a "light" fright flick. Those who do watch will appreciate the movie's messages about teamwork, perseverance, friendship, and facing your fears.
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What's the story?
THE HOUSE WITH THE CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is based on author John Bellairs' classic children's novel set in 1955 about tween orphan Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who's sent to live with his single Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Soon after arriving at Uncle Jonathan's large, haunted-looking mansion, Lewis discovers that the eccentric Jonathan and his best friend/neighbor, Mrs. Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), are (spoiler alert!) actually a warlock and witch -- and the house is full of magical, creepy occurrences. One of those eerie elements is the titular clock, which is loudly counting down to something designed by the house's former inhabitants. Lewis convinces Jonathan to teach him spells and other magic, and the sessions result in a climactic problem for the trio of magicians.
Is it any good?
Director Eli Roth's first foray into family-friendly movies isn't a masterpiece, but it's just spooky and funny enough to entertain young moviegoers who are new to the horror genre. Black and Blanchett are an amusing pair, trading barbs, bickering, and working together to keep Lewis safe. Given her mostly serious filmography, it's easy to forget that Blanchett has finely honed comedic skills. Unfortunately, the laughs here are sometimes awkwardly timed. But Black, as always, is goofy and hams it up in an affable way for the audience. And Vaccaro, who played the son in both Daddy's Home movies, is believable as a shy, slightly nerdy orphan who's hoping to fit in at a new home and school.
The movie is technically well made, but its story is uneven in parts. It's young-kid friendly one moment and then unsettling the next. And once the villains are revealed, the movie gets downright creepy. A lot starts happening rather quickly in the final act, and a few flashbacks and the big magical battle scenes may frighten kids who are sensitive to scary stuff. Roth still has some wrinkles to iron out if he wants to continue making starter horror films for kids, but this first attempt is serviceable enough to be on rotation for Halloween night and sleepover viewings.
Talk to your kids about ...
Did you find the movie scary? Why or why not? How much scary stuff can kids handle?
Director Eli Roth has said that this movie is a perfect "starter horror movie." Do you agree? What are some other horror movies that make good introductions to the genre?
What era is this movie set in? How can you tell? Consider the wardrobes, dialogue, cars, school backgrounds; is it clear in what decade the story is set?
- In theaters: September 21, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: December 18, 2018
- Cast: Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan
- Director: Eli Roth
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Fantasy
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Book Characters, Monsters, Ghosts, and Vampires
- Character strengths: Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 104 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
- Last updated: September 24, 2020
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