The House With a Clock in Its Walls Proves Eli Roth’s Talents Go Beyond Horror

Jan 14, 2023

Famed horror filmmaker Eli Roth’s career is headed into unexpected and only partially explored territory. On the horizon is the genre mishmash/video game adaptation, Borderlands, forecast to be a science fiction adventure comedy, and starring two of his more recent collaborators as well as Jamie Lee Curtis. At a glance, this kind of undertaking is a far cry from his raw, grisly terror of cult debut Cabin Fever – which he made while encamped in the North Carolina woods back in late 2001. That film, a Tarantino-approved Evil Dead-inspired cabin in the woods horror was lauded by some as bringing renewed grunginess to the genre. And it was certainly effective in its marriage of claustrophobia and an original, no less disturbing, non-bipedal enemy.

Eli Roth Has Had a Polarizing Career
His next effort notoriously ramped up the carnage, but the reception towards his later films became increasingly polarized. The director/actor has possessed a keen eye for a good project – and both 2011’s The Last Exorcism and 2019’s Haunt (for which he served as producer each time) were efficient, economical genre films. With a particular zeal for cult movies in general, his reimagining of the 1977 cult psychological thriller Death Game, 2015’s Knock Knock, saw flashes as a slow-build but didn’t quite recapture the inventiveness of his debut. Recently, the director took his fondness for sharks and animal conservation in general to the next level with the admirable documentary film Fin, released in 2021.

In 2017, Roth took the reins for The House with a Clock in its Walls – an Amblin Entertainment throwback with a wholesome vibe and a much milder plot involving a warlock whose old mansion houses a beating timepiece. Based on a beloved 1973 novel by John Bellairs, it’s The Tell-Tale Heart-lite. House was a major change up for the director and proved to be a charming, good-natured flick bearing widespread appeal – with the visual craftsmanship he can bring to a picture present for all to see in a different form. Appreciated at the time, but still arguably under-seen, the surprising directorial left turn served as a testament to Roth’s potential versatility, and an ability to dial back on the excess when necessary. House is ultimately an often funny take on the coming-of-age fantasy that pays affectionate homages to the past while containing nice messages – and it deserves a rewatch.

The Movie Taps Into 1980s Fantasy Nostalgia
Long before House was made, one might be hard-pressed to imagine the director helming a family film, but he did, and the film soars in the way it affectionately tempers something that would otherwise be quite scary had it been a different movie. With its lighthearted approach to a set of escalating and amusing events – it’s the kind of efficiently executed film that makes for a breezy, innocuous watch. Simply seeing the distinctive Amblin Entertainment logo pop up before the film starts rolling kicks up the dust of old-fashioned Spielbergian nostalgia. Not seen in a while, and redolent of ET and other bona fide winners from decades before, the unmistakable logo would not reappear until three years later in West Side Story. Teaming up with the comically gifted Jack Black, and one of the best actors in the business, Cate Blanchett (who have both reconnected with the director for Borderlands), the presence of the two performers adds considerable heft to the narrative.

Shot in rural Georgia, a state away from where the markedly dissimilar Cabin Fever was filmed 17 years prior, the setting doubles for a small town in 1950s Michigan as young, orphaned Lewis (Owen Vicarro) rolls up to his estranged uncle Jonathan’s (Black) brooding, artifact-cluttered abode. Props are warranted for the location scouting because the atmosphere is pitch-perfect. Confronted by the cavernous pad and its innumerable clocks (of varying sizes and levels of antiquity), Roth is able to channel a sense of wonder effectively through some skillful establishing shots and within the first 10 minutes, the intrigue of an 80s adventure film is resoundingly created. Now acquainted with Jonathan and his academic, more competent magic-conjuring best friend, Florence (Blanchett), he’s forced to contend with a house that rings out with the omnipresent tick and chime of recorded time. When it dawns on him that his uncle is a warlock of amateurish ability and that the new home he’s wandered into contains some sinister history involving a more powerful talismanic figure, hijinks ensue.

RELATED: Why Eli Roth Is a Good Director, Actually

The Film’s Visuals and Performances Make It a Must-Watch
Genuinely interesting visual elements are employed by Roth here. There’s an ever-changing stained-glass window within the house which frequently shifts to reflect the tenor of the present moment – a whimsical touch that strikes parallels with some of the David Yates and Alfonso Cuarón-directed Harry Potter films. And the house becomes a character in itself – aglow with a sense of aliveness. There’s a spirited attention to technical detail regarding the various knickknacks. Further on the performers’ front, effective is the presence of Kyle Maclachlan as the certifiably evil (and posthumously vengeful) warlock Isaac. His mere presence hearkens back to grittier material like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, and it’s a clever bit of casting that’ll keep audiences who are savvy with that 80s back-catalog entertained. It seems to be a subtle nod to some early, dark fantastical fare.

Image via Universal Pictures

Black as the self-deprecating Jonathan is good. Taking a role in a film not too spiritually removed from the one in Goosebumps – he is able to evoke laughs in an unforced way, much of the humor arising from organic reactions to the fast unfolding plot. His possibly deliberate incorrect phrasing of old idioms (the “black swan” of the family) also helps in gently nudging, but never heavy-handedly pushing, some of the film’s messages along – reaching audiences of all demographics alike. Blanchett adds considerably to the story and fully inhabits the character of Florence. Her glacial intellect and penchant for well-timed barbs add an enjoyable counterpoint to the absurdity of surrounding situations. Roth himself shows up in a brief cameo as an over-the-top TV character. It’s a surefire sign the director was having fun making the film.

The Welcome Prevalence of Absurdist Humor and Effective Tempering of Horror
There’s an overload of absurdist laughs in House, which is further suggestive of Roth’s ability to deliver off-the-wall comedy with panache. An anthropomorphic chair that scurries up to characters in want of affection is a singularly weird touch. One that firmly works. In another oneiric sequence during the third act, a battalion of pumpkins closes in, spewing bright orange spittle; one of the more memorable jack-o-lantern sequences of recent times. Enjoyable in its bizarreness, here lies an outlet for the director to exhibit a proven flair for memorable imagery in a much more family-friendly fashion. It seems a whole well of hitherto unexplored creativity is on the table considering the film’s stranger additions and successful sight gags. It sees the director mining other areas of the repertoire to deliver a different kind of experience.

That isn’t to say that the film is completely tame – lively wide-ranging entertainment for the most part to be sure, but Roth’s horror roots remain on the peripheries if not in plain sight. The graveyard sequence wherein a reanimated Isaac’s hand appears to gingerly shift the crumbling headstone away is atmospherically shot and is macabre (just) enough to evoke something. In a campy Tales of the Crypt kind of way, necromancy is handled delicately in this instance. The ghoulish Isaac is appropriately Mummy-esque too. That being said, it’s a football field or two away from one of the director’s championed films, Night of the Living Dead, whose graveyard sequence etches a permanent place in the minds of horror fans everywhere. Still, Roth’s place as a Romero or Raimi disciple can’t be shaken away just yet. As per House with the Clock in the Walls though, hopefully, the promise of more retro fantasy comedies with a sprinkling of horror is on the horizon for the director, as he has more than proven himself a capable ship-steerer of quality, family-oriented entertainment.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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