The House with a Clock in Its Walls – Making a family movie could be good for Eli Roth

Eli Roth has made a family movie.

Let that sink in for a second. The man behind that scene in Hostel in which a tortured woman’s dangling eyeball is snipped off in an explosion of blood and pus is releasing a film that your kids can go and see. The movie in question is The House with a Clock in Its Walls and, despite that terrible title, it could be a very enjoyable family scarefest.

The film itself is adapted from the 1973 children’s novel by John Bellairs. It focuses on a young boy, played by Owen Vaccaro, who moves to Michigan in the 1950s in order to live with his uncle in a very old house that used to be owned by a dark sorcerer and appears to have a ticking clock within its walls. They weren’t kidding with that title. The uncle is played by Jack Black, who showed with the fabulous Goosebumps movie that he knows what he’s doing with family-orientated horror and fantasy, while the cast also includes Cate Blanchett as his neighbour.

Trailers for the movie suggest an enjoyable ride, marrying stylish scares with a fantasy romp. Viewers should have their fingers crossed that it’s more akin to the aforementioned Goosebumps than Tim Burton’s desperately poor Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which stunk out cinemas back in 2016 with its family-friendly horror/fantasy hybrid tone. Burton’s movie was at its best when it embraced the darkness in its third act, so Roth’s movie would be wise to follow that lead.

The most interesting element of this isn’t seeing whether Roth can craft a scary film; that’s something he has already proved as a hugely successful genre filmmaker, whether in the now rather troubling torture porn era he helped create with the Hostel series or in his later material like The Green Inferno and Knock Knock. These are divisive movies, but they are certainly films that appear to work for their target audience. The interesting thing about The House with a Clock in Its Walls will be seeing whether Roth’s oeuvre can exist without gallons of fake blood and flayed skin.

This could be the making of Roth as a more rounded, interesting filmmaker. It’s the first time he has made a film children can see and so it has inevitably forced him to turn down elements of his style in order to produce something accessible. However, a director with the edge of Roth will also inevitably maintain some of that darkness within the rules of a child-friendly certificate, providing a movie that doesn’t pull all of its punches. Kids should be scared, and using filmmakers like Roth is a good way to accomplish that.

Seeing a dark or scary movie for the first time is a formative experience and some of the best films of all time embrace that feel of the illicit and the gruesome. Raiders of the Lost Ark is memorable to many for scarring a generation with its face-melting finale, Jaws treated young viewers to dismembered limbs and Robert Shaw’s mouth spurting blood as he was bitten in half and The Nightmare Before Christmas is a 90-minute onslaught of family-friendly darkness. The House with a Clock in Its Walls has been handed a 12A certificate by the BBFC for “moderate threat and scary scenes”, so it’s safe to say that although this may be Roth-lite, it’s still certainly Roth.

If The House with a Clock in Its Walls does turn out to work for Roth, then it could give his career a new lease of life in the more commercial arena. The original book is the first in a series of 12 novels, so this could be enough to keep Roth busy for a long time yet. As long as he doesn’t have time to make another Death Wish movie…

The House with a Clock in Its Walls hits cinemas on September 21st 2018. 

Pictures courtesy of EntertainmentOne.