The Most Surprising Thing About 'House With a Clock in Its Walls'

The House With a Clock in Its Walls Still 1 - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC
Eli Roth, whose films inspired the term "torture porn," is not the first person you'd expect to direct a family film.

Perhaps the most surprising thing in the new family film The House With a Clock in Its Walls isn’t its throwback aesthetic to the early days of the 20th century, or its playful banter between adult leads Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. No, the most surprising thing comes early on when the last of the opening credits is revealed: "Directed by Eli Roth." After years of sticking with horror and being on the cutting edge of a not terribly exciting horror-movie trend, the filmmaker has, at least for now, shifted to making family fare. And the combination, mostly, pays off.

Roth has only directed a handful of films, but it didn’t take him long to establish himself as a horror auteur to watch. Films like Cabin Fever and Hostel were divisive; some embraced the intensely gory affairs, but the Hostel franchise, especially, led to the coining of the phrase “torture porn” for its gruesome depictions of innocent people (often young women) being brutalized by vicious attackers. Since Hostel Part II, Roth may be best known for his turn as the “Bear Jew” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, though he also worked on some TV pilots and, earlier this year, directed the Bruce Willis-led remake of Death Wish.

Putting it lightly, Roth is not the first person you might think of to direct a film like House With a Clock in its Walls. There are touches of horror throughout the adaptation of the John Bellairs novel, to be sure: Set in 1955, the story focuses on young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who’s been shipped off to Michigan after the death of his parents, only to find that his mysterious uncle Jonathan (Black) is a warlock and next-door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) is a witch. After learning some of the tools of the trade, Lewis has to work with Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman to stop the undead and still very nefarious Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) from bringing about the end of humanity. The stakes are high, and the eponymous house has plenty of creepy flourishes, from living furniture to constantly shifting stained-glass windows to a room full of old doll parts.

What makes the pic stand out is the way Roth brings the house to life. Black and Blanchett are more than game as the leads of the film, but the house itself is imbued with plenty of spark and personality. In one scene at his elementary school, Lewis is told by one of his new classmates that his home is nicknamed “the Slaughterhouse,” but what it’s really reminiscent of is the Disneyland theme-park attraction the Haunted Mansion. Though there’s no stretching room or floating medium, the titular house is full of the kinds of off-kilter details that feel right at home in the attraction. Here, more than in any attempts to create jump scares, Roth and his production team have excelled. (There are jump scares in the film, to be clear. Unfortunately, none of them work.)

Another way in which Roth’s style shines is in a couple of flourishes that feel distinctive even amid other spooky modern family films. Lewis is seen, at least in the first half, consistently with goggles above his eyes, a nod to his favorite fictional character, Captain Midnight. The character is the lead of a serial we only see briefly in a fantastical moment, during which one of his nemeses, Comrade Ivan (played by Roth), is seen trying to take the heroic and indomitable figure down. It’s reminiscent of the German propaganda pic inside Inglourious Basterds that Roth directed, a black-and-white melodramatic serial that seems equally inspired by silent cinema. The same is true of a brief flashback during which we see Jonathan and Isaac performing magic together onstage, depicted in the style of old-school nickelodeon movies. These are some of the immediate highlights of the film, where Roth gets to stretch even within the confines of family cinema.

It’s not wrong to presume that Roth would be one of the last people to make a movie like House With a Clock in its Walls, simply because he’s never made a film like this before. (Although Death Wish wasn’t quite in the same vein as his earlier horror pics, it’s still a vastly more adult film than this one is.) Though the film was produced by Amblin Entertainment, Roth makes it work by hearkening back well before the 1980s or even the 1950s, during which it is set. When this pic is at its best, it’s because it feels decidedly old-fashioned and off-kilter. The charmingly quaint aesthetic of The House With a Clock in its Walls doesn’t feel like something Roth would pull off, but this effort suggests he’s got some tricks up his sleeve.