Jack Black stars in Eli Roth’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls.
Photo: Universal

“I’ve been looking to do a movie like this for a long time,” Eli Roth told io9 in Los Angeles recently. Thanks to films like Hostel and Cabin Fever, the director’s name has long been synonymous with gory, intense, R-rated horror. That’s why seeing his name on the PG-rated family film The House With a Clock in Its Walls initially seems so surprising.

“I was actually thinking of ideas that I could write [myself] because scripts like this just aren’t really being made. Scary kids movies are almost a lost genre now,” Roth said.

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Most kid-targeted movies these days are animated, or they’re PG-13 sci-fi or superhero movies. Roth wanted to make a movie like the ones he grew up watching: Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, Labyrinth. So, he was delighted when producer Brad Fischer, with whom he was working on another project, acquired the rights to a 12-book fantasy series written by John Bellairs that starts with The House With a Clock in Its Walls.

Roth saw it as exactly the kind of movie he was looking for, a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, E.T. and Poltergeist, which he cites as his “seminal theater-going experiences.” And those films all have one thing in common: They were produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin, which is the same company producing The House With a Clock In Its Walls. That link really got Roth fired up to take what is, in his mind, the next step in his career.

Director Eli Roth with The House With the Clock in Its Walls’ Kyle MacLachlan.
Photo: Universal

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“I looked at Sam Raimi’s career. I looked at Peter Jackson’s career,” Roth said. “I remembered what Raimi did with Spider-Man and how excited I was or what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings, thinking about his early films, and how excited I was for that. How they each took those [horror] sensibilities and applied them to kids’ fantasy.”

However, Raimi going from Evil Dead to Spider-Man, or Jackson from Meet the Feebles to Lord of the Rings, somehow feels more natural than Roth going from Hostel to, well, anything. In truth, though, Roth says the language and violence restrictions actually opened up his creativity in ways he didn’t know were possible.

“There’s a whole other side of me that is much more the Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro end of that fantasy spectrum that I wanted to shoot,” he said. “When you’re making a movie like Hostel you want to pulverize the viewer. The point is it’s an endurance test...[Clock] is just like going through a fun, scary haunted house. It’s fun. You’re laughing. It’s scary, beautiful, cool to look at, you come out and go ‘I’ve got to do that again’ but it’s not going to give you nightmares.”

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Even though there’s a strong precedent for this kind of directorial leap, Roth had an extra step up on his predecessors. Though he’s not officially a producer on the film, Steven Spielberg was heavily involved and had many conversations with Roth, which the director found invaluable to making the film they both wanted to see.

These pumpkins are the perfect example of scary, but not too scary.
Photo: Universal

“Steven Spielberg sat me down and said, ‘You have to make it scary,’” Roth explains. “And I said ‘Okay, how scary can it be?’ ‘Oh make it scary,’ he said.” But this is Eli Roth, a man who admits to being out of body parts to chop off in his films. So this time, instead of chopping limbs, he’s chopping pumpkins. Instead of stalking young tourists, stop-motion automatons stalk witches. But even with those fantastic elements, there is one thing these scenes have in common with gory, R-rated scares.

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“The thing is you have to make the scare real. The threat has to be real,” Roth said. “When I watch Gremlins, those gremlins will kill you...Those movies didn’t pander to kids. They really respected them. They took their time. They were very patient with story and character development. It was very confident filmmaking.”

And Roth was a very confident filmmaker too, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s mentorship.

“I actually remember the night his [HBO] documentary aired I got pages, like pages of very, very detailed notes. I was two weeks from shooting and I thought ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do all this?’ But he was right about everything,” Roth said. “He looked at every cut of the movie and said ‘I still feel like Isaac’s voice isn’t there. There’s too much backstory. Can you simplify this? This backstory feels convoluted.’ That was the trickiest part and Steven watched the last cut and finally said ‘You nailed it.’”

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Owen Vaccaro is the young star of The House With a Clock in Its Walls.
Photo: Universal

It’s Roth’s hope, if he did nail it, that The House With a Clock In its Walls will be a gateway drug to young people—a film adults can safely, confidently show them which gets them interested in other scary movies.

“If you love scary movies and you’re a parent, you’re going to want your kids to be into scary movies,” Roth said. “But you’re not going to start them with The Nun. You’re going to traumatize them. You need to have a movie to show them that gets them into scary movies. For most people that’s Gremlins. So I wanted to make a movie that kids could go see in a theater with their parents, have a great time being scared, having fun, laughing but not be traumatized.”

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That movie could very well end up being The House With a Clock In Its Walls. It’s in theaters today.