Jack Black returns to the kid horror genre with this week’s The House with the Clock in Its Walls, and while it hasn’t impressed critics quite as much as Goosebumps, they still say it’s pretty good. However, it does have adult horror-meister Eli Roth behind the camera, so there may be a few things that are too intense for the younger kids. Read on for Christy Lemire’s family-friendly assessment of the film, as well as three witch-centric alternatives you may choose to watch instead.
Rating: PG, for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language.
A family film from horror director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) might sound like a contradiction in terms. But The House With a Clock in Its Walls features elements that are both fantastical and frightening. Based on the book by writer John Bellairs and illustrator Edward Gorey, the movie finds shy, studious Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moving in with the uncle he’s never met (Jack Black) following his parents’ death in 1955. In small-town New Zebedee, Michigan, folks regard Black’s Uncle Jonathan as a bit of a weirdo, and his stately Victorian mansion is the stuff of legend. But Lewis quickly learns the truth: Jonathan is a warlock, trying to solve the mystery of the ticking coming from inside the home’s walls with the help of his next-door neighbor, the perpetually purple-clad witch Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Roth’s film plays with the possibility of using magic as a means of kid wish fulfillment: getting dressed in the morning, seeking revenge on school bullies in the afternoon. But it turns scarier as Lewis accidentally unlocks some darker powers with the use of a forbidden spell book. Creepy dolls abound in a secret room inside the house, accessible only by a dark passageway. Predatory pumpkins come to life to wreak havoc. And key scenes take place within a cemetery at night. It’s probably too much for very little kids, but I’d say this is a fine choice – and a solid introduction to horror – for viewers around 9 and older.
If The House With a Clock in Its Walls has you pondering other movies about witches and warlocks, here are a few suggestions:
It’s Dorothy’s story, of course: her hero’s journey along the Yellow Brick Road with the help of three new friends (and Toto, too). But it’s her encounter with two witches – one bad, one good – that sets her on that tuneful path. When the tornado Dorothy travels in to the Land of Oz fatally falls on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, her sister, the grotesque and green-hued Wicked Witch of the West (a chilling Margaret Hamilton), vows revenge. But as she tries to return home, Dorothy (Judy Garland) also enjoys the guidance and protection of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), a vision in mountainous sparkles and tulle. When I was a little girl watching the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz – which was event viewing back in the ‘70s — the Wicked Witch of the West terrified me, as did her flying monkeys. So that part might be a bit too much for kids around 5 years old. But for everyone else, The Wizard of Oz is a must-see, a classic rite of passage. Watch it – or watch it again – with the whole family.
A lovely and joyous film from animation master Hayao Miyazaki. While many of Miyazaki’s movies feature some dark and potentially disturbing imagery, this is a sweet, light tale – albeit one that’s about a witch. Thirteen-year-old Kiki leaves her family for a year to live and train in a foreign city, where she opens a delivery company. She navigates the skies above the shops and streets on her broomstick, with her signature red bow in her hair and her trusty black cat, Jiji, by her side. But as she draws closer to puberty, she finds she’s losing her abilities, which weakens her confidence. And she survives some perilous situations and near misses during her big-city adventures. But Kiki is a witch who uses her powers for good, and she’s loyal and resourceful. A great choice for all ages.
Anjelica Huston is a sleek and radiant witch in this wild and whimsical family adventure. Based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, The Witches finds young, orphaned Luke (Jasen Fisher) traveling with his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) on vacation in hopes of restoring her health. But he finds there happens to be a witch convention going on at the hotel where they’re staying, which enlivens all the outlandish fairy tales he’s heard about them over the years. Luke overhears their leader, Huston’s Eva Ernst, ordering her minions to turn all the children they see into mice – a special effect director Nicolas Roeg achieves with help from Jim Henson’s puppetry magic. The Witches is visually ambitious but also tonally twisted, with off-kilter humor and an overall sense of foreboding. The idea of witches turning kids into mice might seem frightening for very young viewers, but overall I’d say this is fine for children age 8 or 9 and older.