If you’ve seen any of the other movies made by director Eli Roth — including the grisly Cabin Fever, the sadistic Hostel and its sequel, or the cannibal nightmare The Green Inferno — you might be taken aback to learn that his new movie, The House with a Clock in its Walls, is based on a beloved 1973 children’s book by author John Bellairs. You might also be surprised to learn that the new film carries a PG rating and not a hard R, and that the amount of blood spilled in the picture amounts to one drop.
The movie stars Owen Vaccaro as a young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt who is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a large and creepy old house in the town of New Zebedee, Michigan. Once there, Lewis discovers that Jonathan and his good friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) are a warlock and witch respectively, and they’re trying to find the clock that’s hidden within the walls of the house.
That timepiece was placed there by the previous owner, the late Isaac Izard (Kyle Maclachlan), and it’s ticking down to something dreadful that will occur unless Jonathan, Florence and now Lewis — who wants to learn the ways of magic as well — can stop it.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is produced under Steven Spielberg’s Amblin banner, and the movie aims to channel the same kinds of thrills and scares that the classic Amblin films achieved within the context of family-friendly yet sophisticated entertainment. What makes Roth such a startling choice initially to direct the movie is that he’s known for anything but family-friendly genre fare. But as he tells Den of Geek in our interview, it’s movies like Poltergeist and Gremlins that set him on the filmmaking path in the first place, a debt he wanted to repay with The House with a Clock in its Walls.
Den of Geek: How did this come your way and were you looking to go in a different direction?
Eli Roth: A confluence of both. Sometimes it happens that you put something out there in the universe and the universe answers. I’d been wanting to do a movie like this — a kids movie, but my version of one. Something that was much more at the Amblin, Time Bandits end of the kid’s movie spectrum. A kind of a pure PG scary movie for kids. This book and the script came along through the producer, Brad Fischer, and I just couldn’t believe it. I read it and I said, “This is literally exactly what I’m looking to do. What I’ve been wanting to do.” It’s the type of movie that I really really miss. I remember as a kid how important those Amblin movies were. I know I’m known for very violent horror, but those gory horror movies I didn’t start seeing until I was maybe 12 or 13 years old and they were all in VHS.
Before that the movies that got me into scary movies were those early Spielberg movies and Amblin movies like E.T. and Raiders and Gremlins and Goonies and Poltergeist. I mean I can’t tell you what a seminal event Poltergeist was in my life. I feel like that type of movie is missing today. When I was 10 years old the kids’ movies were movies like Time Bandits where the parents blow up at the end and people get turned into pigs and The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and Dragonslayer. The movies weren’t so scary that they traumatized you, but they made you want to see more scary movies. They were really gateway films.
But I feel like today parents, everyone who grew up in the Amblin generation as kids, they want their kids to be into scary movies, but they can’t start them out on It or The Nun or something. You need to have a movie that gets them excited about it, so they’re still watching those Amblin films. It’s still Gremlins. I think that kids’ movies have become superhero movies and franchise movies or animated movies. There doesn’t exist that pure PG movie that you go see with your parents and you get scared, but you’re laughing, you’re having a great time and that’s what I wanted to do.
Amblin never really went away, but it seems like they’re trying to bring back not just the brand name, but the kind of films associated with that brand name as well.
They’re relaunching Amblin and this is the film they’re using to relaunch it, and I understood the importance of that and the responsibility of that. I sat down with Steven Spielberg before we made the film and he gave me some incredible advice. We talked about the whole process and he said, “Make it scary. Do not be afraid to make it scary.” And I said, “I really want to have this scene of automatons attacking,” and he goes, “I collect automatons.” Like really? So he says, “Yeah my kids won’t let me put them in the house because they’re scary. They’re too terrifying.”
I was like, “Well can we use them?” He’s like, “Yeah of course.” So Steven lent us some of his automatons for the movie. I got to build this fantastic, incredibly creepy world and after I finished the film and had my first cut I showed it to Steven. He called me and he just loved it and he said, “Eli you really did it.” I said, “You know that that Amblin brand was everything to me as a kid,” and he said, “Well you’re really carrying the torch.” He said, “This is not mocking or imitative of an early Amblin. It’s not trying to be an old Amblin movie. It’s truly its own thing, but it feels like it shares that DNA and connective tissue with those early movies.”
So that for me was the ultimate compliment for Steven Spielberg to call me and say that I was really carrying the torch for Amblin, because those filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante and Tobe Hooper meant everything to me as a kid. To make a movie for this label was something I could never have done before now had I not made those other films.
Obviously you’re known as a hardcore horror filmmaker, but when you look at the resumes of some of the masters, George Romero made Knight Riders. John Carpenter made Starman. Wes Craven made a few non-genre films. Everyone’s got sort of mainstream films on their resumes. Was there any moment where you thought about the “Eli Roth brand” and whether that would be affected by this?
No, I think that whatever my name means, I was always making movies of what I was interested in at the time. I look at Sam Raimi’s career. I look at Peter Jackson’s career. You know Raimi starting off the Evil Dead movies and then went into Spider-Man. Peter Jackson started off with Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Brain Dead and went into Lord of the Rings. That was a career trajectory that I always wanted to have. I wanted to be Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton or Ridley Scott.
You can feel those influences in the film so if I’m ever going to be that or have a career like that then I have to prove myself in that arena and this is my chance to do that, but if I want to continue that, I think that the key is I just have to make movies I’m passionate about and stories I want to tell and something I feel that no one else is doing or that no one else can do in the way that I can do it.
Was it your idea to put the old Universal and Amblin logos at the front of the film?
Yeah. I said, “Gosh I wonder if we can put the 80s universal logo and then the 80s Amblin logo and then I want to spin it backwards. Just like the way that it’s about moving time backwards and turning back, I said, “What if we reverse the Universal logo?” And they said, “Yeah, yeah. No problem. We’ll do it.” We had to dig, dig, dig — it took a while to find that file. Like it hadn’t been used in a while, but I loved it. It’s fun doing those logos.
There is some dark stuff in the movie. The scene with the automatons is pretty creepy stuff. Did you push some of that stuff as far as you thought it could go? Did you hold back on anything?
Well, the audience tells you when you’ve gone too far and when it’s too scary or whether it’s too intense or whether you put too much humor in. I talked to Jack Black about making School of Rock and he said it was the first time he had to completely shut off the R-rated side of his brain and once he went PG it forced him to think of ideas and jokes and things that he hadn’t done before. So suddenly this whole other side of humor comes out and he’s forced to be funny differently. That’s what happened to me. When I said we’re making a kids movie, it was very important to me to make a pure PG movie. Not a PG-13 movie.
So every idea I went, “How can I do this idea and have it be great and creepy in a PG way? How can I pull this off? How can we cut the hand and have the demon tongue come out and lick the blood and do all of these things that are classic fairytale imagery, but in a PG way?” There’s one drop of blood literally in the entire movie and that’s used for a spell. And that’s it. That’s all you get and that was the fun of it. I had the time of my life making this film.
How was it working with Jack and Cate? Were they very different in terms of their methods?
Jack and Cate are more alike then people realize. You know they’re close to the same age. I like to say they’re three grades older than me. They’re like the popular seniors that I got to direct in the school play. And they’re brilliant. I think that Jack really doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what a brilliant dramatic actor he is. I think he is our generation’s Robin Williams. You think about Robin Williams, he did Dead Poets, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting and he also does Mrs. Doubtfire. Jack does Jumanji, but he does The Polka King, and Bernie is one of his brilliant performance.
Cate is actually very very funny and we’re just starting to see that side of her now in Thor: Ragnarok and in Ocean’s 8. She’s hilarious and I think that Cate really brings out the best dramatic acting in Jack and Jack brings out the best comedy in Cate. And the two of them have the most incredible alchemy. I mean it was just magic when you saw them together. I was so lucky to get those two.
What else sort of pushed you as a filmmaker on this? For example, I don’t think you’ve done a whole lot with CG in the past — was that something that was kind of flexing new muscles for you?
Definitely. I looked at directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson and Michael Bay and wondered, what is it about their CGI that looks so good, but always feels groundbreaking when you watch their movie? You go, “Wow I’ve never seen that before.” And you know those guys have such an eye for detail and they just grind and they redo shots over and over and over.
My visual effects supervisor, Louis Morin, is amazing. He’s really an artist. He’s a perfectionist. He showed me what he did in Sicario and I didn’t realize how much of that sequence was digital. And he did Arrival — he’s Denis Villeneuve’s visual effects supervisor. Louis and I have a very high standard for having everything look photo real even in a fantastic way.
You have produced a new documentary series called Eli Roth’s History of Horror that’s premiering next month on AMC. If someone was to sit down and watch that and have really no understanding of the genre, what would you want them to take away from it?
There’s such a wonderful history of the genre. There are so many great movies out there that you might not know about, and even if they were your favorite films, you might hear the filmmaker put a particular spin on it that makes you want to go back and rewatch them. You know these films are alive as long as people are watching them.
The idea was to do a complete catalog or history of the genre. Now it could have been 1,000 hours and it would still be incomplete, but we crammed as much as we could in there with all the pillars of the genre and some obscure stuff too. So if you’re a casual horror fan it gives you so much to go on for a deep dive. If you’re an expert in the genre you’re going to see experts talk about movie the way you’ve never heard and also some movies you may have never heard of.
It also plays like a greatest hits of kills. I mean you just want to watch the amount of awesome clips that we got to pack into an hour of television. It’s incredible. It’s so much fun. I remember as a kid loving Terror in the Aisles and then watching that Bravo special of the 100 greatest scariest movie moments. It has that feel, that’s what I wanted to do, but in the context of, “This is where the genre came from and this is how it started and this is what got it here.”
What’s next for you on the directing front?
We’ll see. There’s 12 of these books. If the public comes out and supports this one we’ll have to do another one.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is out this Friday (Sept. 21).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye