Lewis Barnavelt’s life is all ajumble.
After his parents die in a car crash, the orphaned tween has to travel on his own to the little town of New Zebedee, Michigan, to meet an uncle he’d never seen before. And when they do meet, Lewis isn’t altogether sure what to make of the little man dressed in a silky robe—his “ka-moan-oh,” as Uncle Jonathan calls it.
“There’s no bedtimes, no bathtimes or mealtimes in this house,” the bearded, overly expressive fellow declares after they make their way home from the bus station. In fact, Uncle Jonathan makes it clear that chocolate-chip cookies are a fine meal, too, thank you very much. “You can eat cookies ’til you throw up, for all I care,” he proclaims, smiling in the confused boy’s direction.
And that’s hardly the only strange thing about Lewis’ new home. The old house—full of mahogany banisters, oddly moving stained glass windows, walls lined with ticking clocks and a lounge chair that makes a noise that almost sounds like a … bark?—is a curious child’s wonderland. It’s a crazy place that’s lightly sprinkled with something approaching magic. At least, that’s how Lewis sees it.
Uncle Jonathan’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, is pretty magical, too. At the very least, she’s magically charming. She always dresses in purple, and she always smiles Lewis’ way with a sparkle in her eye. And there’s always a comical, cutting jab at Uncle Jonathan on her lips.
“I’m relieved to see that you didn’t inherit your uncle’s freakishly oversized head,” she says with an impish grin.
“Did that withered purple skeleton just speak?” Uncle Jonathan gasps in reply.
And on and on they go.
In spite of all that, though, Lewis still isn’t so sure about his current place in the world. The kids at his new school call Uncle Jonathan’s house “the slaughterhouse,” and they speak of murders and hauntings there. Indeed, a number of creepy things do pop up in that old, creaky, ticking place. Especially at night.
But then something even more life-changing happens, an event that tips Lewis’ skewed life in a totally different direction. While answering some pointed questions, Uncle Jonathan admits that he’s a … warlock. Yes, he’s a male witch. He says that there was in fact a death in the house involving an evil person. And he confesses that the house has some kind of ticking doomsday clock hidden somewhere in its walls.
But biggest shock of all is this: Uncle Jonathan says that he’s willing to teach young Lewis the ropes of casting magic. There are scores of books to read, facts to memorize and incantations to practice. But the most important element of all, Lewis eventually learns, will have to come from himself, completely on his own.
Maybe, just maybe, Lewis thinks, his new life won’t be as bad as he first thought.
Mrs. Zimmerman says at one point, “All one really needs in this world is a good friend,” referencing the times when Uncle Jonathan selflessly came to her aid. The two of them have a loving and respectful, if at times sarcastically playful, relationship. Meanwhile, Lewis learns the difference between a good friend and an untrustworthy individual at his school, and he eventually develops a friendship with someone who has a lot in common with him.
We see the emotional distress that Lewis and Mrs. Zimmerman both struggle with because of the deaths of family members whom they loved deeply. “Having a child means being scared for your kids 24/7,” she declares. And Lewis, on several occasions, weeps over the loss of his family. He kisses their picture and speaks of his love for his deceased parents.
Later on, we see that Mrs. Zimmerman, Uncle Jonathan and Lewis have begun to see one another as a makeshift family. (One could say that, in a quiet way, the film advocates for adoption.) In fact, the brokenness Mrs. Zimmerman had felt for years over the loss of a daughter is somewhat repaired because of her growing love for Jonathan and Lewis.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls commences with a rather light and airy approach to the subject of magic. But when Uncle Jonathan admits to Lewis that he and Mrs. Zimmerman are actually a warlock and a witch, respectively, he begins to portray their magical “dabblings” as a struggle between light and darkness. “Anyone can learn to be a warlock,” and someone can only become a warlock when he “defeats an evil spirit by using his own magic,” he tells Lewis.
Eventually, Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman and Lewis battle dark forces by casting fireball spells and unleashing zaps of magical energy. We also watch Jonathan use magic in ways that don’t involve combat, such as when he fills a small courtyard with magically created miniature stars and planets.
That dramatic depiction of witchy spirituality is, of course, problematic when looked at from a biblical perspective. But the film is really just getting warmed up when it comes to sinister and occult spirituality.
What begins whimsically turns much more darkly and disturbingly evil once a warlock named Isaac Izard enters the story. He and another witch deceive Lewis. Specifically, they manipulate the boy into using a necromancy spell book and his own blood to raise a corpse from the dead.
We also witness part of Izard’s own demonic backstory. While in search of power, he encounters what we’re told is a “prince of Hell” and makes a bargain with that devilish entity. The being cuts open the man’s hand and licks up his blood with a repulsively bloated tongue.
We see someone draw a pentagram. A Magic 8-ball is used to commune with the dead. Horned devils are represented in various forms—from silhouetted drawings to a large demonic automaton that’s brought to life. Elsewhere, spells are cast and incantations chanted. People magically shapeshift. We’re shown a cabinet protected by “charms, wards and spells,” and the front of a house is covered with “lucky shoehorns.”
One spell includes the biblical phrases “Alpha and Omega,” and Uncle Jonathan tells Lewis that in the Christian faith, Omega means, “Judgment Day.” Ordinarily inanimate objects such as furniture, a stained glass window, wind-up dolls, a pipe organ, pumpkins and books are all brought to life. And a dark forest is said to be a source of great spiritual power, the haunted place where the Brothers Grimm” wrote their “histories.” A magically imbued “doomsday clock” is said to have the power to destroy all of mankind.
Mrs. Zimmerman makes it clear to Lewis that there’s no “kissy-faced stuff” going on between her and Uncle Jonathan.
Jonathan is transformed into a baby at one point. We see his adult head on a tiny naked body, though key areas are kept out of the camera’s view. When Jonathan’s transformed back, he has to hide his naked form behind a large object and ask for his clothing back.
A heavyset neighbor displays ample cleavage.
Schoolkids talk about a murder that supposedly took place at Uncle Jonathan’s house. And we see a flashback scene of Isaac Izard casting an explosive spell that leaves him lying dead on the floor. That explosive moment spatters a bit of Izard’s blood on the pages of a book. Izard also magically shapes a special key that’s said to be made out of human bones.
In the course of the movie, several magical events threaten Lewis, Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. In one of them, a room full of inanimate automatons comes to life, with the beings grabbing the protagonists and throwing them out of the house. Several jack-‘o-lanterns come to life and snap at the good guys, spewing quick-drying pumpkin goop at them. Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman smash the pumpkins with various weapons and magic blasts. Twenty or so books come to life as well, swooping in like bats on Lewis, who’s lying prone on the floor. Their bookish attacks lacerate his hands with papercuts.
At school, Lewis and others get thumped around during a basketball game, and Lewis gets punched in the stomach by a bully. Lewis is also locked in a cage and magically suspended over many swords with their blades pointed threateningly toward him. Elsewhere, two people are hit with magical blasts before falling from a high platform and disappearing in the gears of a giant clock.
A topiary griffin snarls and charges at Mrs. Zimmerman. She slips away just outside the reach of its snapping teeth. As part of his warlock studies, Lewis gathers up a fistful of electrical energy and accidentally zaps a magically animated chair, which sends it yelping into another room.
Four uses of “d–n” and one of “h—.” People also exclaim “good lord,” “blasted” and “my god!”
A magically enhanced hedge that’s trimmed into the shape of a griffin is the focus of several toilet humor gags as it blasts leaves and feathers out of its backside. Several other toilet-humor giggles involve Uncle Jonathan’s need to urinate.
Director Eli Roth—best known for helming hard-R horror bloodbaths such as Hostel and The Green Inferno—recently told Vulture that he grew up watching Steven Spielberg-influenced movies such as Gremlins, Goonies and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. And, he said, he hoped to imbue this movie with similar charisma.
You can easily see that influence as the film starts to roll. Mix that cinematic spirit with the introduction of the bizarre-but-charismatic characters created by stars Cate Blanchett and Jack Black, and you can’t help but want to enjoy this film right out of the gate.
But hopes and wants do not necessarily make for a good movie.
And that’s oh too true in this case.
After just a short while, The House With a Clock in Its Walls reveals itself as a construct of odd bits and dark pieces that clack and clank against each other like a poorly assembled wind-up doll or a haphazardly geared clock. Roth’s ’80s homage is overpacked with flickering froth and sinister scares but frightfully shy of logic, or, well, fun.
A big part of that filmic failure can be attributed to the director’s stated aim for his first kids’ movie. Roth said he wanted this to be “a movie that you see as a kid and that gets you into horror movies.” And you can definitely see that “horror lite” approach in full force here. But even though he tries to make light of this pic’s witch-and-warlock magicking, he can’t help but eventually throw its doors wide, welcoming pentagrams, blood-magic spells, necromancy and demons from Hell.
That kind of dark, creepy stuff sent at least two kids in my screening audience scurrying—and crying—from the theater. Their accompanying parents ushered them out with hushing, comforting murmurs and uniform expressions of guilt on their faces. That’s not a reaction that bodes well for a movie supposedly aimed at families.
One can only hope that wise parents are scared away from this freaky flick … long before their kids are.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.