Viral movie marketing has been a thing since before we were using the word “viral” with our current post-millennial frequency and zeal. In the late ’90s, there was the campaign to convince the world that The Blair Witch Project was based on a true story and that a trio of filmmakers had actually gone missing in the Maryland woods (and I guess that vengeful ghost witches were real?). More recently, Fox turned a bunch of 7-Elevens into Kwik-E-Marts to publicize the release of The Simpsons Movie and Sacha Baron Cohen spilled “the ashes of Kim Jong-Il” all over Ryan Seacrest at the Oscars to plug The Dictator. But studio publicity people have really outdone themselves with the It Experience: Neibolt House Hollywood, a ramshackle haunted mansion that was constructed from the ground up in a parking lot at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
New Line's investment in the Stephen King clown reboot (which comes out Sept. 8) should delight horror fans — especially those who are over 18 and live in the Los Angeles area — for several reasons. For one thing, the haunted house is actually scary, which bodes well for the film since it's the source of all the experience's creepy imagery. Also, it indicates the studio believes in the product enough to go to elaborate lengths to make sure people are itching to see it. Speaking as a horror fan (one who saw Annabelle Creation as soon as it was released even though the first one was sort of shitty), I wonder if it's a bit superfluous — because people are definitely going to see this movie. Despite the 187-minute TV version's many flaws (among them, that it's 187 minutes long), the 1990 miniseries is a classic, thanks largely to Tim Curry's psychotically gleeful performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a child-murdering monster of unknown origin who terrorizes the otherwise quaint town of Derry, Maine.
Rather than bastardize Curry's hucksterish, vaudevillian balloon-pusher — his red nose like a bulbous, gin-blossomed alcoholic uncle's — it appears the new incarnation has gone in a slightly different but no less sinister direction. This Pennywise, played in the film by a handsome man named Bill Skarsgård, is all Victorian ruffles, frills and puffed sleeves, and sports a pair of buck teeth that overlap his bottom lip when he's mid–murderous sneer. In the grand tradition of terrifying clowns (or, I guess, all clowns depending on your sensitivities), he takes visual cues that could be cute and friendly and makes them really, really upsetting.
At the It Experience media preview on Sunday, Pennywise himself was relegated to the house, while creepy kids holding red balloons and wearing yellow rain slickers in the mold of the film's first casualty, Georgie Denbrough, meandered through the crowd with their heads down (which I imagine got uncomfortable after a while). On a long, wall-height piece of plywood, Venice Beach artist MuckRock spray-painted a mural of Pennywise's evil yellow eyes. According to a publicist, the haunted house's entire run (Aug. 14-Sept. 10) sold out in a matter of six hours, but you can sign up for the waitlist in the hope that ticket holders don't show (it's free, after all) and they'll also occasionally allow walk-ups.
OK, I'm going to talk about the haunted house now. So stop reading if you're going or might go and don't want anything spoiled.
Visitors enter in groups of seven, a nod to the seven members of the Losers' Club in the film, and are led through the house by a yellow slicker–clad Georgie. Ideally, I think the Georgie is supposed to behave like a ghoulish minion leading visitors to Pennywise and, ultimately, their demise. Our Georgie was a real doll of a middle-aged guy who seemed as if he just wanted everyone to have a good time. Very nice; not spooky. The dilapidated house's foyer is scattered with leaves and debris and is empty except for a chandelier and a spiral staircase leading up to the second floor.
The first room might be the worst (in the best way). Life-size clown figures line a path toward a tiny toddler-sized casket that's meant to be the subject of everyone's attention. But if you're distracted by the niggling thought that one or more of the clowns might be a living thing, you wouldn't be wrong. The next room resembles a garage where a sinister video plays on a television and a slideshow is being projected on the wall. A family is having a portrait taken on a windy day and the mother figure's hair has blown in front of her face. As the slides progress with that familiar but ominous click, the camera zooms closer and closer and closer till Pennywise's face emerges from beneath the woman's tangle of orange hair.
I'll be honest, the details get blurry after this because the pace picks up and the scares come more frequently. The final scare, which I don't care to ruin, takes us back down to the sewers, Pennywise's dark, dank lair in the original film and the place where everyone floats, if you know what I mean. Longtime fans of the book and miniseries — not to mention coulrophobics — should relish the opportunity to revisit childhood trauma. It's viral marketing horror fans (like me) can get behind.
For standby tickets and more info visit fareharbor.com/thatswhereitlives/items/58786.