The House With A Clock In Its Walls scared me. (For the record, I am an adult.) If you've seen the trailer, this might come as a surprise because it's a PG-rated movie about magic. But, it's also a PG-rated movie about magic directed by Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) that has jump scares and grotesque twitching faces and a baby with an adult head (more on that later). So, yeah, The House With A Clock In Its Walls is scarier than you might expect, and star Jack Black is all for it.
"To put your mind at ease, we kept him [Eli Roth] at bay and stopped him from going to his usual gory place," Black says via phone a week before the film's Sept. 21 release. "There's not one drop of blood in this film. There's tons of pumpkin guts and robot fluid, but no gore. And I thought he did a beautiful job."
The film follows a fourth grader, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), who has to go live with his uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents die. The thing is, the house they live in is alive, Jonathan is warlock who is best friends with a witch named Florence (Cate Blanchett), and Lewis basically (and accidentally) "unlocks the gates of hell," as Black puts it.
When I ask if children will be too spooked all of this, the actor does a maniacal muhaha laugh before answering. "Yeah, they will be freaked out," he says. "But that's what you want. It's not fun if it's not freaky. If it's not scary, then what's the excitement? That's why we hired Eli, because we knew he could take us there. But you're saying did we cross the line. You're saying, did we get too scary. I'm gonna say, no."
One of the creepiest images comes toward the end of the movie when Black's head is shown on a baby's body. And it was not just CGI, but an actual model that existed. "When I met this little baby it was crazy, 'cause it's not just looking in the mirror at that face; it's in 3D," Black explains. "I just loved that little baby like it was my own child even though it was a fully formed adult Jack Black face on the body of a little baby. Like, very odd, but oh my god is that creepy and funny and great." Where is it now? "I think that goes straight to Spielberg's basement."
While the film, based on the 1973 John Bellairs book, is scary in the moment, it's not the kind of scary that sticks with you or keeps you up at night, which is why it works for kids. Roth has spoken about the movie as an introductory horror film; something that lets kids in on the genre, but is more akin to a "fun haunted house".
"There's something fun about creatures and beasts that can kill you. You are drawn to that kind of subject matter even as a kid," Black says. "I should add to that, though, as long as its mixed in with some important lessons about growing up and stuff like that. I think that balances it out."
In The House With A Clock In Its Walls, this means a message about kids embracing their weirdness. Lewis is in a new town at a new school and his quirkiness doesn't go over so well with his classmates. In the end, though, he starts being true to himself — he just battles an evil, destructive magician (Kyle MacLachlan) in the process.
In addition to having some scary scenes and imagery, the film also explores dark themes that will be more apparent to adult viewers than to children. This includes references to Florence losing her daughter during the Holocaust and MacLachlan's character fighting in World War II. "That kind of subject matter if it's done right, it's OK," Black says. "I think kids can know about the dark history and can process that stuff. And it's actually sometimes important for kids to know the truth about where we came from and where we're going."
As adults, there are moments from childhood where we can think back and go, "Hmm, was I too young for that?" or "Wow, that was really scary," but those memories aren't usually mingled with regret. An experience that stands out for Black in this regard is seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark. "I remember when I was a kid and I saw that movie there were some genuine scares. Like when the dude's face melts at the end when he opens the ark, like, that's the best part of the movie," Black says. "You don't want to take out those scares because you're worried about the kids getting scared ... It's a right of passage. That's when we grow up a little bit."
Now, a new generation of kids can grow up a little while watching The House With A Clock In Its Walls and experience not a melting face, but a robotic baby with Jack Black's head.