The fact that Eli Roth — the director behind Cabin Fever, Hostel, The Green Inferno, and Hemlock Grove — is now releasing a PG movie will naturally raise brows. But the typically R-rated horrormeister promises The House With a Clock in Its Walls is very kid-friendly — even if it is a meant as a gateway to the horror genre.
That’s how screenwriter and producer Eric Kripke describes it, which is why he was “thrilled” and “relieved” when Roth came aboard the project. “While this movie has an incredible amount of heart and humor and there’s nothing that is going to give your kids nightmares, it does have real stakes, and it has a couple real jumps,” he tells EW. “I think if you like scary movies, you’re going to want to take your kid to this one, because this movie is sort of the gateway to them being scary-movie fans. I think this’ll be your kids’ first scary movie.”
Based on the 1973 John Bellairs book, The House With a Clock in Its Walls stars Owen Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home) as Lewis Barnavelt, a young orphan who goes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) after the death of his parents. He soon realizes that his new home is full of magic because his estranged relative is a warlock, and his new next-door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a witch.
Roth spoke with EW about his transition to a family-friendly genre, his love of old Amblin Entertainment films, and the need to fill a void in the freaky PG-rated space, a field once occupied by movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Gremlins.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you ever feel pigeonholed in the industry as the strictly hard-R-rated guy?
ELI ROTH: The truth is that I love horror, so I was never worried about being pigeonholed. If I want to get out of any kind of box the industry puts me in, that’s entirely on me. Before I did Cabin Fever, I did 20 animated shorts, and my agents would sell me around town as a guy who did kids’ animation. Then I said, “Well, what I really want to do is horror movies.” And then I do horror movies and I go, “Well, I really want to act.” And I act and say, “Well, I really want to produce.” It’s on me to prove it. I look at directors like Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, who started out making horror movies and genre movies and branched out into other genres. That’s the kind of career trajectory that I always saw myself having, so I never really worried about being pigeonholed because I was always really confident that I would make a movie to show that there was another side of me.
And I’m glad I did those movies because I don’t think I could’ve accomplished what I did in House With a Clock in Its Walls had I not made those films. Plus, people that know those movies and know me will certainly see my touch in there. I know that my reputation, in a way, plays into the viewership of the film that people who saw Hostel went, “Oh my gosh, he made a kids’ film. What is this going to be like?” But that too was always a very exciting combination. When I saw Time Bandits, I knew who [director] Terry Gilliam was and I thought, “This was from one of the guys from Monty Python.” That was one of the things that was exciting about that movie, and that was one of the movies that changed my life.
Had you been actively trying to branch out to other genres before House With a Clock in Its Walls?
I’ve always wanted to do a movie like this, and certainly there were other movies that I was in contention for that were outside of the horror genre. Doing Death Wish was a pretty straight-down-the-middle revenge thriller, to show that I could do something other than horror. But it’s interesting, after Hostel came out, I was offered everything and I chose to do Hostel 2 and just continued on my own path, and now I’m much more open.… And, look, we just released the poster for Eli Roth’s History of Horror, where it’s a seven-part documentary series on AMC of me cataloguing the genre. So I love it, it’s a part of me.
Watching House, it’s clear that you’re emulating that classic era of E.T., Back to the Future, and Gremlins. Had you ever had conversations with Steven Spielberg, [the head of Amblin]?
Obviously, Steven Spielberg was a huge influence on me. The horror movies that I saw, the violent ones that I saw, were all VHS movies. I saw them at sleepovers with friends. My early theatrical experiences, the life-changing experiences in a movie theater, were those early Steven Spielberg films: We’re talking about E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Gremlins, Goonies, even Back to the Future. Those Amblin movies for me were an event as a kid — an ’80s kid, I was 10 years old when they came out. So they really, really deeply affected me, and that’s what I wanted to get back to. I miss those movies.
I think that kids’ movies now have turned into Marvel and Star Wars movies or animated movies, and while those films are fantastic, I think there’s a hole. There’s a void that’s been created for the straight-PG, fun, scary Amblin film, and I think the kids love that. You need that movie that’s going to introduce you to the fun of scary movies. If you love Hostel, if you love It and The Nun and you want your kids to be into those movies, you can’t take them to those movies because they’ll traumatize them. You take them to a movie like The House With a Clock in Its Walls. It’s like going in a fun haunted house. The kids are going to be scared, but you’re not traumatizing the kids. They’re not going to have nightmares from it. So that’s what I wanted to create.
The Amblin films always had heart. That was something Cate Blanchett said to me after she saw it. She said, “Eli, you really captured the fun and insanity of Gremlins, the beauty of Barry Lyndon, and there are shades of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” So you have everything there in this movie, and that was the fun for me, going from the slapstick comedy, which Jack and Cate are so brilliant at, to a dramatic scene where you really see what a strong dramatic actor Jack is.…
I told Steven those Amblin movies were so important to me, it was very important to help continue the brand — and rebrand it, not make a movie that’s imitating that tone, but really something that’s in the spirit of those films. Steven said, “You really did it.” He’s like, “It’s not mocking or imitative. It’s truly its own work. The direction, writing, it all holds hands with one another, it’s all of a piece, and you’re really carrying the torch.” So we’ll see how audiences feel about it. I love it. I feel like this generation of kids hasn’t seen a film like this in a while.
Where do you think that void in PG films stems from?
Well, I think that it costs so much money to release a movie, and the movies have all turned into these massive $250 million event tentpoles. Marvel, DC, Star Wars, they all stake out the calendar years ahead. So anytime you’re in considerations to make a movie like The House With a Clock in Its Walls, the first thing the executives do, they don’t look at the script, they look at the release calendar and they think, “How am I going to get this audience?” Because you know they’re spending $80 million or $100 million to release it. So even if your movie’s great, it’s just going to get drowned out, it’s not going to get enough oxygen. The nice thing about a scary movie is that it does fall in that Halloween time, and the superhero movies tend to be summer and major holidays, so there is this a little space that you can get that in and launch a film like this.
And I also think the Fantastic Beasts films are great, but I do think there’s a bit of a void for the Harry Potter world that I think this movie can fill, because it’s kids on this adventure. You’re watching kids go through this. These books were written in 1973, so obviously they were written way before the Potter books, and we were very conscious to make this movie very different, but I do think there’s a lot of wish fulfillment in magic movies that kids watch, and it’s fun to watch kids learn magic, even though it’s a very different kind of movie.
I’m always curious about dealings with the MPAA. Did you ever have to pull back on specific things that you knew would not have made your film a PG movie?
I was very conscious to make a PG movie. I feel like PG is the right rating for this story. I always have. There were certain things, like the demon tongue, that I put in the movie and people would say, “The MPAA will give us a PG-13 for sure,” but I always kept it magical enough. For slicing a hand, it’s got magic sparkle in it. There’s no blood in the movie, there’s not a single swear in the movie, there’s no nudity. And I think they’re used to such over-the-top violence from me that they were legitimately shocked when they saw the film, very happily so.
The MPAA has been great. They’ve always been very, very fair with me, and I have a great relationship with them and I think it’s the best system there is. For example, in the U.K. they gave us a 12-A, which means kids need an adult to see it, and they made us cut the demon tongue, which I think is one of the most fun moments in the movie for kids. There’s no discussing it. It’s a government board so there’s no meeting, there’s no phone calls, there’s no filmmaker involvement when you’re in Europe. Then the U.S. version got a 6 in Germany.
Amblin is sort of in a soft-reboot stage. Because they are doing the Arachnophobia remake, have you been in discussions with them about any other projects coming down the line, especially ones that call back to what we were talking about with this void in classic PG films?
This actually happened because I was going to — and I’m still supposed to — direct an adaptation of a graphic novel called Aleister Arcane with Jim Carrey, which is an even crazier Gremlins-, Beetlejuice-type movie. And the writer has been working on the script and it’s just the timing of it didn’t work out with the script, and then The House With a Clock in Its Walls came in and I was almost pre-approved at Amblin to do this type of movie.
I had the best experience working there, and I would love to work with them again. They’re really, really filmmaker-friendly, they get me, they really let me go wild creatively, they trusted me, they let me take chances that I don’t think anyone else would let me take. There were 12 books written in the Lewis Barnavelt series. The first one was The House With a Clock in Its Walls. If this movie does well and people like it and they go see it, then there’s 12 more books. Jack, Cate, myself, Owen, all of us had the best time of our lives with this movie, and we’d do another one in a heartbeat.
I wouldn’t say Amblin is in a soft reboot. I’d say they are in a full relaunch with a House With a Clock in Its Walls, but we’ve got to see the public response.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls opens Friday.