2018 Film Essays

Eli Roth Replaces Trademark Irreverence with Quiet Reverence for ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’

At first glance, it’s difficult to situate The House with a Clock in Its Walls within director Eli Roth’s filmography. Following a politically reckless triptych that studied the implications of mass socialization through online platforms (The Green Inferno [2013], Knock Knock [2015] and Death Wish [2018]), this tonally scattershot kiddie Gothic seems almost to surface from nowhere. In some sense, it’s worthwhile to view the film completely on its own terms; but when dislocated from the rest of Roth’s ouevre, it offers little foundation for serious critical engagement. The film is flatly and almost numbingly pleasant. It’s over-designed but not to the point of genuine exuberance; occasionally amusing but never that funny; periodically stirring but by no means truly creepy; and unlike every one of its filmmaker’s preceding films, it moves through its entire runtime without ever straying near the territory of bad taste.

The film is based on John Bellairs’ subdued adolescent novel of the same name, originally published in 1973. Set in the fictional town of New Zebedee in 1955, the plot focuses on recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who is sent to live at his estranged Uncle Jonathan’s (Jack Black) mysterious mansion. Before long, Lewis discovers that his uncle and eccentric neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) harbor secret magical powers, and that the mysterious ticking that emanates nightly from the walls of Uncle Jonathan’s mansion promises something ominously powerful. Alienated by his peers, Lewis quickly forms an ad hoc family unit with Jonathan and Florence and sets out to resolve the mystery of the clock bound up inside the walls. The conflict’s stakes are ultimately revealed to be potentially apocalyptic, pitting Lewis against sinister occult forces.

In some sense, this film acts as an abstract, spiritual return to Roth’s origins. Following Death Wish’s satirical brutalism by way of reactionary diagnosis, The House with a Clock in Its Walls seems to showcase an artist in a space of tentative inquiry. Seeking inspiration from the Amblin canon of the 1980s, Roth approaches this project as a springboard for playful pastiche while still working under the considerable constraints of creative supervisor Steven Spielberg’s tutelage. Indeed, this director-supervisor setup recalls Spielberg’s hyper-attentive production of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), a film that Roth has cited (rather inexplicably) as an influence on The House with a Clock in Its Walls. However, while Poltergeist showcases the contending visions of two distinctly different and equally confident auteurs, Roth’s latest film appears to evidence a brilliant but unsure filmmaker acquiescing to the input of his experienced mentor.

All this is to say that The House with a Clock in Its Walls places Roth in completely new and uncharted creative conditions; and in doing so, it brings him close to the sensibility underpinning his 2002 debut Cabin Fever. Just as Cabin Fever plumbed the cinematic possibilities of pure pastiche, The House with a Clock in Its Walls invests its faith in a lineage of genre fare for children: where Cabin Fever pays homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Evil Dead (1981), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Last House on the Left (1972), The House with a Clock in Its Walls purports to model itself after films like E.T. (1982), Gremlins (1984) and (unfortunately) Beetlejuice (1988).

Cabin Fever laid the foundations for a body of work characterized more by its filmmaker’s attitude and ideological point of view than by his formal style. That is, Roth’s body horror debut plays out the first permutations of his many career-long interests: the disquieting undercurrents of social behavior, sexual anxiety and the destruction of the human body. The Hostel films take these ideas to more narratively and conceptually sophisticated places, while The Green Inferno, Knock Knock and Death Wish swerve into ambivalent spaces of political conservatism and satirically distanced autocritique. 

The House with a Clock in Its Walls sees Roth returning to a career-long recurring narrative structure of an outsider crossing the threshold into an unknown space, and a few key schoolyard scenes show glimpses of his cynicism toward social structures. Primarily, though, the film revels in the tonality and texture of whimsical children’s fantasy — Roth plays the reactionary again, but this time he’s reacting against all the tenets of his own reputation. The film is stubbornly apolitical, even playing a side-narrative of World War II trauma as airless background information; it’s also clearly fixated on image-making, especially by means of big-budget set-building and computer-generated effects. From the standpoints of cinematography, staging and visual direction, the film is confidently and intelligently executed, but its images have no significant impact or staying power.

More from Mike Thorn: The Aesthetic and Formal Challenges of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’

This is perhaps Roth’s first attempt at pure aesthetic formalism. His previous films have engaged varyingly with external sources (Death Wish and Knock Knock are remakes of older films, and like Cabin Fever, The Green Inferno builds itself on a long-lasting subgenre tradition), but all of them use genre expressly to frame Roth’s uniquely antagonistic inclinations. Alternately, The House with a Clock in Its Walls finds its director beholden to an expanded-and-updated treatment of beloved source material. Roth admits that he was unacquainted with the novel when he first read Kripke’s screenplay, but that he had long been an admirer of illustrator Edward Gorey. His film’s poppy visual design bears little resemblance to Gorey’s somber pen-and-ink minimalism, but his prioritizing of images over text is key.

Emerging from a preceding filmography of viciously abrasive and almost ceaselessly offensive films, The House with a Clock in Its Walls sees Roth re-examining his interest in genre cinema from the standpoint of imagistic design. One might argue that the film’s sturdy but unremarkable visual approach speaks to a deficit in its director’s abilities, but more likely it suggests his unfamiliarity with a new mode of expression.    

Ultimately, it seems that the film’s pleasant and inoffensive affect is exactly what Roth intends. The work is unassuming, competently handled and ably colored within its established lines. It aims clearly and unwaveringly to please a young target audience. Coming from one of the most distinctly combative, impolite and genre-devoted auteurs currently working, it’s difficult not to look at this playful trifle and feel the slightest bit disappointed. One viewing leaves me feeling that I’ve seen a puzzling curio, one whose humble reverence stands starkly apart from a preceding output defined by irreverence. As with all filmmakers worth thinking and writing about, though, Roth creates work that deserves more than one viewing before final judgments are made. It’s perhaps too early to label The House with a Clock in Its Walls a minor work from a major contemporary genre filmmaker, but for now I’ll say it anyway. Whether or not the film announces a permanent shift in direction might be the most intriguing and difficult question it poses. 

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, podcasts and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest and The NoSleep Podcast, and his film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage and The Seventh Row. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.