When one thinks of Eli Roth, one remembers such blood-soaked, hard-R gorefests as Hostel, Cabin Fever, and The Green Inferno -- not a PG-rated film about a 10-year-old boy who goes on a magical adventure with a witch and a warlock.
But that's exactly what his new film, The House With a Clock in Its Walls, is about. Based on a 1973 children's book by John Bellairs, the movie stars Jack Black as the warlock and Cate Blanchett as the witch who battle demons and other scary creatures in their small town, with the help of a young orphan (Owen Vaccaro).
The movie is a production of Steven Spielberg's legendary Amblin Entertainment, and Roth told Vulture that Spielberg himself was adamant about recapturing the vibe that classic Amblin films like Gremlins and The Goonies strived for:
"They really wanted to relaunch what Amblin was in the ’80s. Steven couldn’t have been more supportive of me. And when he saw the movie, he said, 'Eli, you really did it. You really made a true Amblin movie. It’s not mocking or beholden to something before it, yet it feels like it’s in the tradition of those. You’re really carrying the torch.' It was pretty magical."
And in case anyone thinks Roth has lost his edge, he reveals that it was Spielberg who encouraged him to add a touch of darkness into the movie:
"Well, you know, Steven said to me, 'Make it scary.' He said, 'Kids want to be scared. You gotta make it scary.' Sebastian’s lab in Blade Runner was a huge influence on this. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The clown dream in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure -- there are shades of that... When you make a horror movie, you’re really trying to disturb someone. When it’s scary and magical and fun, it’s like a haunted house, where it’s scary and spooky, but it’s not going to traumatize you. It actually gets kids really excited."
Roth says that making a movie like The House With a Clock in Its Walls is a "natural progression" for him, "just done in the PG version of it." And while he insists that he's not abandoning the hardcore horror that first put him on the map, he's also clear that he wants to expand his horizons:
"This is the seventh movie I’ve directed. I was ready for a bigger canvas, something more visually spectacular. The movie sort of plays into my reputation. I know there’s a little bit of danger of, Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m taking my kids to an Eli Roth movie. And I certainly want that going in. That’s part of the fun of it. The fun is surprising people."
Is the world ready for a children's fantasy film directed by the guy whose name is almost synonymous with the infamous horror subgenre known as "torture porn"? We'll find out in a few weeks when The House With a Clock in Its Walls opens on Sept. 21.