Although he disavows any association with the genre and blanches at its mere mention, writer-director Eli Roth has become synonymous with so-called “torture porn” horror movies. To wit: In the director’s 2013 gore-fest The Green Inferno, a primary character has his eyeballs plucked out before being torn limb from limb and eaten alive by Amazonian rain-forest cannibals. In Thanksgiving, a fictitious slasher-flick trailer that Roth filmed for the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez horror feature Grindhouse, a cheerleader is shown bouncing on a trampoline pantyless then getting stabbed in the vulva. His most popular films, Cabin Fever (2002) and the Hostel franchise, are showcases for over-the-top violence spiked with black humor. It’s all earned Roth a reputation for being “crassly provocative” and “punishment obsessed.”
His latest movie, however, arrives as something of a career curveball. The Boston native and occasional actor (he portrays a vicious Nazi hunter nicknamed “the Bear Jew” in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) has directed the first non-horror film of his career: an adaptation of John Bellairs’s gothic kids lit classic, The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett as (respectively) a mediocre but well-intentioned warlock and a good witch who become magical mentors to a 10-year-old orphan (Owen Vaccaro), the PG-rated fantasy-thriller marks a return to children-skewing fare for Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s production company that has released such epochal family-friendly classics as ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, and The Goonies.
At an editing bay on the Universal Studios lot last week, Roth screened scenes from The House With a Clock in Its Walls for Vulture and chatted about why he wanted to do a kids’ film now.
Cabin Fever. Hostel. The Green Inferno. The House With a Clock in Its Walls. One of these things is not like the others.
In my mind, it’s a natural progression. When you see the movie, you’ll see stuff from my other movies — just done in the PG version of it, in a very subversive way. My films have always had a kind of Monty Python insanity to them, where you’re watching the movie and suddenly it does things that movies aren’t supposed to do. But this project was brought to me last June, right after I finished Death Wish. They were looking for a director. I read it, and within five pages, I was like, “I have to do this!” And they said, “We’re gonna move fast. We need to be shooting by October.” We were racing the entire time to get it done. We finished in December.
A lot of people are going to have a hard time accepting an Eli Roth kids’ film. I’m sure you’re aware of that.
I’ve always wanted to do my version of a kids’ movie. And by that I mean a film like Time Bandits or Beetlejuice or Gremlins or Goonies. As much as I love and am known for really gory movies, those kind of Amblin movies were my earliest theatrical experiences. Nobody does it better than those early Spielberg movies. There was a danger. The first 20 minutes of E.T. were very scary when you were a kid. When E.T. is dying? You believe that E.T.’s dead! The movie goes dark and that’s what makes the best children’s movies. That’s what makes them resonate with children. It gives them their first experience of being scared, but in a really fun, fantastic way.
Across your filmography, your tendency has been to shock and provoke. To make a more family-friendly film, did you have to staunch those impulses?
You have to respect the genre you’re working in and do what the genre requires. So if you’re making a shocking horror movie, the task is to provoke and push people’s buttons. If you’re making a scary, fun kids’ fantasy-adventure, it’s to thrill people. Give them Raiders of the Lost Ark where you have those exciting set pieces like the boulder and the basket chase, but you also have the melting faces and the spirits coming out and stabbing people in the eye. So that’s the fun of it — mixing all the different tones.
Cate had the best quote. She’s like, “Your movie is a mixture: the lunacy and fun of Gremlins, the heart of E.T., the beauty of Barry Lyndon. And then it goes into Virginia Woolf at some point.”
When your Netflix series Hemlock Grove was coming out, you famously said, “This is going to fuck up an entire generation.” In fact, you’ve said plenty of provocative things like that in interviews and set out to deliberately stir people up with what you put on the screen. Why should people trust their children to you with this?
Look, I’m certainly aware of my reputation. But I would say this: I think everybody grows up. And you grow out of certain things. You look at your favorite rock stars — the way they’re behaving at 20 versus when they’re 40 and have become parents. At a certain point, saying stuff like that feels very 2012. I wouldn’t say something like that now. That was the fun of Hemlock Grove; people legitimately got screwed up by it. As far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished. Plenty of people come up to me and go, “Yeah, your movies really screwed me up.” And I think that’s great! I look back now and go, Wow, that’s who I was then. Man, have I grown, have I changed.
I’m not disowning that. But at a certain point that gets old. It’s like, “Okay, well, how can I surprise people now? What’s the new shocking?’” The new shocking is doing a PG movie. A scary PG movie. A movie for 9- and 10-year-olds that still has a sense of mischief and danger, that’s not about sweetness or some heavy-handed message.
Just so I’m clear, you’re not turning your back on horror, are you?
No, I’m not. Look, 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. I think this is the best film I’ve ever done. It’s my favorite movie.
Amblin is rebooting itself as a company with this movie. Interesting they should choose the hard-R horror guy to do it.
They really wanted to relaunch what Amblin was in the ’80s. Steven [Spielberg] 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.
You showed me a scary scene in which a room full of automatons come to life and attack the protagonists. What’s the difference between directing a sequence like that for a kids’ film and showcasing the horrific violence for which you are known?
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. Tim Burton, you can feel that influence.
It’s not horror because horror implies that you’re really trying to horrify people. 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.
It sounds like this movie is, in a way, the culmination of all your years of studying and making movies.
Well, I look at what Sam Raimi did with Spider-Man or what Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings. I love their early horror films. Those are the directors that I aspire to be like. You go see Spider-Man and you see the Sam Raimi in it, and his Evil Dead fans, there are little jokes in there for them, too. So people that love my horror films are going to see this and definitely see my sensibility.
So are there winks that you give to your horror films in The House With a Clock in Its Walls?
Oh, for sure!
Anything we can single out?
I don’t want to give it away. But you’ll see it. For sure, people will go, “Oh, my gosh, it’s a reference to that. I can’t believe he did that!”
*A version of this article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!