Director Eli Roth’s stated intention with his big-screen adaptation of the children’s-lit gothic horror novel The House With a Clock in Its Walls (in theaters Friday) was to create a “scary, fun, kids’ fantasy-adventure” — a PG-rated “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.” Set in 1950s Michigan in a spooky Victorian mansion where an evil warlock (Kyle MacLachlan) has hidden the titular timepiece — intended to bring about no less than the end of humankind — the film swings between Beetlejuice-esque humor (a doglike armchair, an octopus rattlesnake in the closet) and gently kid-skewing scares (puking jack-o-lanterns, murderous automatons). It features Cate Blanchett as Florence Zimmerman, a powerful yet mysteriously ineffectual good witch; Jack Black as Jonathan Barnavelt, a bumbling sorcerer; and Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, his orphaned 10-year-old nephew who becomes the pair’s magical mentee.
Easy enough to forget, then, that up until now Roth has been known as a controversial purveyor of the hardest-of-hard R-rated horror: fetishistic spectacles of sadism, dismemberment, and evisceration like Hostel (for which New York film critic David Edelstein coined the term “torture porn” to properly describe), and knowing throwback exploitation like the gruesome cannibal flesh-feast The Green Inferno. Stranger still that Amblin Entertainment — Steven Spielberg’s production company, responsible for such PG-rated kids’ classics as The Goonies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Back to the Future — would entrust Roth with a film intended to return the company’s emphasis to family-friendly fare.
Which brings us to the pooping topiary griffin — the scene-stealing CGI creation that almost single-handedly makes House With a Clock in Its Walls feel something of a piece with other Eli Roth films. Deliberately provocative, borderline-but-not-quite abusive, the griffin became a top talking point among attendees of the film’s Los Angeles premiere last weekend (and is almost guaranteed to become as much outside Hollywood when House hits wide release).
Arriving onscreen in the movie’s first third, the magical, winged lion made of shrubbery is shown stalking the Victorian mansion’s backyard, ripping sulfurous farts and crapping dead leaves into the swimming pool. After Lewis performs his first act of magic, conjuring a constellation of night-sky stars out of a small fountain and levitating the mini galaxy around the garden, however, the topiary griffin does something unexpected: He shits on the kid. “Bad kitty!” Black’s character exclaims.
Roth, speaking to Vulture inside an editing bay on the Universal Studios back lot, says the idea was to offset the film’s Spielberg-ian sweetness with a certain Roth rawness. “I read in the script, ‘There’s a topiary lion,’” the director recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, if you’re going to do it, take it to a Woody Allen/Mel Brooks level.’ The topiary lion takes a shit. And the shit is leaves. It’s gross but funny but also done in a PG way.”
“I wanted to have that sense of Amblin magic, that wish fulfillment of when you’re a kid, what if you lived in that house and had an uncle who could do magic and create the illusion of a planetarium in your own backyard?” Roth continues. “I wanted that sense of magic and sweetness. But in the end, the kid basically gets a shit taken on him with leaves. It’s one of those things that’s so ridiculous, so unexpected. ‘Wait, did they just actually …?’ You don’t see that in a Spielberg movie. You don’t see kids getting shit on in most movies. It’s subversive. And it’s not taking itself too seriously. But it’s still real in the context of this universe.”
“That’s just my humor,” he concludes.