Ordinarily, it’s the characters in scary movies who are being haunted, but with the latest from The Ring producer, Neal Edelstein, it’s the audience’s turn. Pieces of his new film are set to emerge on viewers’ mobile devices at unpredictable times, like restless spirits returning from the grave.
Haunting Melissa is a scarily playful, thoroughly modern experiment with the media through which horror stories are delivered. The new film was made to be viewed over time, via an app on iPhone, iPad, or iPod. What’s more intriguing than the distribution method, however, is the schedule. The first installment is available on May 16, but viewers will never know when subsequent segments drop, or how long they’ll run. It’s a viewing experience designed specifically for the person who is pathologically glued to a smartphone, forever awaiting fresh intelligence to tumble forth.
"I wanted to tell a story, and I wanted to tell a ghost story, but what I didn’t want to do was take some script that I had lying around, collecting dust, or create something with a traditional three-act structure," says Edelstein. "I wanted to tell a ghost story in a completely different way."
Edelstein has experience with nontraditional storytelling from his frequent collaborations with pioneering mind-bender David Lynch. Together, the pair first sought out a new digital-based way to tell stories in late '90s, when they launched DavidLynch.com, but the time (and technology) wasn’t right yet. Now, technology has caught up to the ideas Edelstein began devising years ago, and the result is Haunting Melissa.
It’s a scary movie that favors psychological horror over blood-and-guts splatter, and it’s intended for young, digital-savvy audiences. The characters in the film are addicted to their devices, just like the desired viewer. And just as these devices constantly hover around us, the titular Melissa (Kassia Warshawski) is haunted by her recently deceased mother.
"The story was the first spark, but it was really just holding the device and going 'This would be awesome to tell a ghost story,' " the producer says. "After that, the question was, 'How do I do this differently? I don’t want to be an app that’s just a regular movie."
One of the major differences is the push notification format. The target audience has been trained to look forward to incoming content on their phones when one of their friends has favorited a tweet or hearted an Instagram. The same message will now signal the unexpected arrival of a new chunk of Haunting Melissa. Each segment is staggered for an indeterminate length, and the clock will not start ticking until after the last scene is finished.
Once users download the app, a story timeline appears in split screen, with what looks like a scrollable filmstrip on the right side. Each segment here is a new section of the movie, and they’re color-coded to let viewers know what’s available. If it’s in regular color, it’s ready to be seen; if it’s in black and white, you’ve already watched it; if it’s tinted, it’s not yet available. The producer won’t say how many chapters there are total, another way he’s working to control the unpredictable nature of the project.
The app itself is free, and so is the first chapter. Users will get a prompt to buy a season pass for $6.99 or the hi-def version for $14.99. The hesitant but curious can purchase each chapter à la carte, at 99 cents a shot. Also, anyone who posts about the first segment on Facebook will get the second chapter for free—an incentive the producer hopes will set a precedent for starting conversations about the film on social media.
To make a film for the connected generation, Edelstein assembled a team through his production company, Hooked Digital Media, for both shooting the film and designing the platform.
"Taking a film discipline of postproduction and marrying that with iOS development has been a really interesting challenge," he says. "Much more difficult than you would expect. There’s been so many iterations, and coding issues, and sound changes—just a lot of things that change in the process that normally might not."
Another thing that changed during the course of production is the movie itself. Haunting Melissa has what Edelstein calls dynamic storytelling elements. He shot certain scenes two ways and then pushed the technology to allow for real-time edits. Viewers who rewatch chapter two later on might notice someone standing in a window who wasn’t standing there before. Right now, these instances are predetermined and spread throughout the story, but the producer designed the CMS so that he can flip switches any time.
It’s an optimistic move that will allow Edelstein to refresh the content viewers have already seen by the time he gets around to making a sequel.