Studio: Hooked Digital Media
Director: Neal Edelstein
Writer: Andrew Klavan, Neal Edelstein
Producer: Kevin Washington, Neal Edelstein
Stars: Kassia Warshawski, Travis Nelson, Barb Mitchell, Greg Lawson, Jasmine Berg, Stefanie Bartlett, Lorette Clow, Larry Reese, Christian Laurian Kerr, Lisa Moreau
Haunted by her mother’s ghost, a young woman is led to unravel an occult connection to a sinister small town conspiracy.
NOTE: Part 1 covers the iOS app that wraps the movie. Part 2 covers the film’s content.
PART 1 – THE APP
“Haunting Melissa” is a feature-length “found footage” horror film presented in a serialized format as an iOS app. Masterminded by filmmaker Neal Edelstein and produced by Hooked Digital Media, “Haunting Melissa” pioneers an approach to 21st-century digital distribution combining creative content, tablet technology, and social media into one overly cumbersome entertainment experience.
Divided into 11 primary chapters ranging in length from eight to 22 minutes apiece, the film is accessible only in segments, with each individual on his/her own “mysterious schedule” as to when the next chapter becomes available for viewing. In this current tech-centric world of smartphone separation anxiety where a tri-tone is Pavlov’s new bell, the idea is to harness that kind of connectivity conditioning into a unique experience where push notifications excitedly herald unlocked film content instead of a new favorite on your latest tweet.
Edelstein and Hooked Digital Media are on the right track by being in front of changing trends in entertainment consumption, but they are riding the wrong train. Media companies often operate on misguided plans that they dictate how content is acquired when the reality is that consumers set the standard. It’s the hubris that crippled record companies when music fans graduated to MP3 while record stores fell asleep stocking shelves with physical discs. Bullheaded Blockbuster Video was similarly too big to fail, yet lost its war of attrition to Netflix while playing catch-up in the mail-order media market.
Netflix was so far ahead of consumer trends that when they saw online streaming turning DVDs into dinosaurs, their attempt to spin off disc-based services as a separate business was met with widespread “we’re not ready!” derision. Netflix was still wise enough to see TV series “binge watching” becoming part of the vernacular as well as habitual behavior, delivering their produced projects as complete seasons in one go while others held fast to the network notion of one hour per week spread over nine months.
Which is what Hooked Digital Media is doing perhaps without realizing it. “Haunting Melissa” is presented via a fresh medium, but it still uses an antiquated mindset for scheduling.
Netflix changed TV delivery because the consumer evolved. DVRs became commonplace in standard cable packages because people want to watch content on their own terms, whenever and wherever it is convenient for them. Hooked Digital Media’s idea of creating anticipation with an iPhone message announcing a new chapter’s availability is novel, but people have real lives with jobs, families, and responsibilities. The notion of stopping everything to watch the latest installment of “Haunting Melissa” is simply not a realistic expectation no matter the quality of the content. It is somewhat admirable that “Haunting Melissa” wants to change expectations for how media is consumed, but it is not a practical method, and the staggered delivery timing isn’t even woven in as an ARG element.
By itself, watching a movie as part of a somewhat interactive app is not a bad idea, except “Haunting Melissa” goes out of its way to be as obtrusive as possible in a manner that no one could defend as user-friendly. The first wall erected by the app is a hellbent determination to link to the user’s Facebook account. Each time the app is opened, a prompt appears asking for permission to post to Facebook on your behalf. Select “Don’t Allow” and you will receive the exact same prompt again two taps later upon pressing play for any unlocked chapter. Select “Don’t Allow” a second time and the “Haunting Melissa” app will crash. Every. Single. Time. (For the record, I tested on both an iPhone 4s and an iPad 2 using iOS 7.1.2 and 8.1.2.)
Annoying social media prompts are hardly something that has been missing from the movie watching experience. And when was the last time a film projector had to be rebooted?
Trial and error eventually taught me that to avoid constant crashing, I had to change my Settings to allow Facebook access regardless, though not necessarily permission to autopost, otherwise downloading new chapters was impossible. After dismissing the first Facebook prompt upon starting the app, I’d back out of “Haunting Melissa” and turn off Facebook access again in order to thwart the second popup prompt. Then I would have to remember to turn access back on again after completing a chapter so that I’d be able to download the next segment when it was ready. This had become such a tedious procedure by chapter four of eleven, which took 20 minutes to work properly and that is not an exaggerated estimate, that I almost capitulated by finally granting permission to spam my Facebook wall so everyone who hasn’t given me a second thought since high school could know I was watching “Haunting Melissa.”
I watched Chapter One sometime around midnight. As initially feared regarding the random unlock timeline, “Haunting Melissa” then woke me up with a message that Chapter Two was ready at 7:26am the following morning. Not only was the serialized format being idealistic, but now the push notifications were being arrogant. Are people truly expected to not go back to sleep, but to watch the next 20 minutes of a three-hour movie instead? What about those preparing for work or school? Who wants to watch a piece of a horror film in the light of day at the breakfast table or on the bus instead of while home alone in the dark?
I actually watched Chapter Two fairly soon after the message anyway, finishing at 8:17am. Chapter 2.1, as in addition to the eleven main chapters there are seven chapter epilogues of short lengths between 30 seconds and two minutes, was then unlocked at 7:47am the next morning, just a half-hour shy of a full 24 hours later. Chapter Three arrived at 8am the following day, with Chapter Four coming at midnight two days after that.
Provided that the user makes a “Haunting Melissa” autopost to social media after Chapter One, the first four chapters are free. The film is so leisurely paced that nothing in those initial installments, particularly the first chapter, inspires an “I must have more” mentality. Nevertheless, I purchased the season pass and migrated the experience from iPhone to iPad.
Migrating with me were new technical problems. Despite all of my “Haunting Melissa” notifications being set with bright green “on” indicators, I stopped receiving push notifications when new chapters were available. Maybe it was my punishment for a steadfast refusal to link my Facebook account, but once I was on iPad, I had to manually check the app three times each day to see if new content was available. Generally, a new full chapter or mini-chapter arrived once per day, and sometimes twice. With 18 pieces in all totaling exactly 180 minutes including end credits, it thus takes about 1-2 weeks to see “Haunting Melissa” in its entirety.
One of the app/movie’s other “hooks” is the inclusion of DSEs, or Dynamic Story Elements. Upon watching certain chapters a second time, things might appear altered. After viewing a chapter, I immediately watched it again looking for these differences. In total, I logged exactly three of the 18 segments where something noticeably changed, although the DSEs are so subtle and minor that more may have gone unnoticed. Two of these three instances weren’t actually additions, but rather subtractions. A ghost that appears briefly in two of the chapters does not appear the second time around. This means that the basic incentive to watch a three-hour film a second time is to *not* see things that were there the first time. Why would anyone want to do that now?
The last item to note about the film’s format is that nothing about the story itself demands this presentation style. 2013 Dutch thriller “App” (review here) comes with a companion app for mobile devices providing users with a second screen that plays a pseudo-role in the film. “App” is about a rogue, sentient computer app and putting the actual program in the audience’s hands is part of the interactive appeal. “Haunting Melissa” on the other hand, is simply a traditional “found footage” movie about a haunted house and paranormal possession. The telling is not part of its tale and the viewer is a passive participant, forced to watch silently as the screen displays text chats between characters without any active element giving users a way to be involved. There’s no advantage to playing out on a handheld device, unless being forced to watch a movie piecemeal on a screen smaller than a Subway sandwich sounds like an ideal experience.
PART 2 – THE MOVIE
It’s been about a year since Melissa Strogue’s mother died following a religiously raving bout of dementia that saw her locked away in a separate bedroom, muttering to herself about evil. Melissa’s boyfriend is at college. Her father is working on the road. That leaves Melissa alone with the creaking doors and ghostly voices inside the spooky family farmhouse in Kansas.
As part of her grief counseling, Melissa’s therapist tasks the young woman with recording a video diary. That diary ends up documenting Melissa’s investigation into the weird whispers haunting her home. What that leads to is a deeper mystery involving the truth about Melissa’s mother, the secret hiding behind a locked bedroom door, and an occult conspiracy binding Melissa’s strange hometown together.
The insurmountable issue for the film is that it unnecessarily pads itself with three hours of content to justify the rationed delivery format, not because the story requires the time. “Haunting Melissa” confuses being vague and ambiguous as a means of generating intrigue and fascination, when what it really does is foster boredom and frustration by endlessly spinning its narrative wheels.
Chapter One features best friend Holly imploring Melissa to open a locked door leading to the room where Melissa’s mother Katherine died, but Melissa is too afraid to do it. Chapter Two includes an encounter with an entranced boy whispering to Melissa in a ghostly voice, “open the door.” In Chapter Three, Melissa has a phone call fight with her father Jack about opening the door, ultimately defying his wishes and deciding to break the lock on her own. Except as soon as she starts lock-picking, a knock at the door calls her away and Melissa never gets back to it. Chapter Four opens with a ghost leaving a voicemail about opening the door. Later, Melissa video chats with her boyfriend Brandon about her lock-picking operation being interrupted. The very first mystery introduced is this locked door and it takes Melissa more than an hour of the runtime to finally open it in an excruciatingly slow buildup.
Following in the footsteps of that taffy-stretching storytelling technique, certain static shots linger so long that you have to check the progress bar to make sure the video didn’t freeze. Talking in circles is another trick for drawing out the script without actually moving the plot anywhere. Opening the bedroom door leads to a new mystery, though one with a paltry payoff just as far away.
Inside the locked room, Melissa finds a videocassette recorded by her mother in which Katherine “confesses” to her role in a town-wide conspiracy. That word is in quotation marks because “confession” is a term only loosely applying to Katherine’s revelations. Melissa’s mother’s monologue includes phrasing such as, “I did what I did. I thought it was right. We didn’t think it was evil.” That is two separate uses of the word “it” without specifying what “it” is. Katherine goes on to say, “I realized that someone had to. I think we all understood that someone had to.” Had to what? Her video concludes with, “but we all knew. Everybody knew. You have to understand that, Melissa.” I’m sure Melissa would love to understand it, so would the audience, if you would just say whatever it is that everyone actually knew. What use is a revelation video if the subject speaks only in cryptic terms?
By Chapter Nine, Melissa has a key confrontation in which she says, “what I’m guessing, what I can put together, is that … you all went there and you did something, or something happened.” After 140 minutes, the most insight gleaned by the heroine over the course of her investigation is that “something happened,” though she still has no idea what “something” even is. That’s how long it takes to not come any closer to putting flesh on the film’s skeleton of a story.
A chief challenge with the overly talky screenplay is that the cast is unequipped for adding texture to the words. As Melissa, Kassia Warshawski is saddled with multiple monologues, each delivered with the same wide-eyed expression and high-pitched panting used for expressing fear, frustration, or any emotion whatsoever. Melissa isn’t the only person vacant of personality. Her father is either absent or aloof. Her boyfriend is distant and unsympathetic, more than once insinuating that Melissa is crazy. With dialogue so time-killingly empty, no one develops into a person worth investing any attention into. Not that it matters much with a mystery whose most engrossing breadcrumb is that someone “did something, or something happened.”
Production design can be distractingly sloppy. A NASCAR pennant cocked at an angle appears on the dorm room wall over Brandon’s shoulder like it is Riverdale in the 1950s, a telltale sign of a prop person’s hand, not a genuine college kid’s. Melissa’s last name is misspelled several times as well, including in the name of the website shown onscreen to promote the film (although melissastrouge.com (sic) does redirect to the correct address).
Sketchy details hamper the narrative, too. Melissa’s therapist has a ground floor office with an enormous window facing the street where anyone can, and does, walk by and peep who is lying on the couch. A newspaper article later cites “an anonymous therapist” who can only be that same person. How many mental health professionals can there be in a town so small that when someone calls 911, s/he refers to the operator directly as Sally? And for reasons unknown, the voice scrambler used to disguise a mysterious video broadcaster changes pitch between chapters, making his dialogue in Chapter Three completely unintelligible.
Even an 80-minute version, which “Haunting Melissa” could easily be, would still bear a desperate desire for genuine suspense or thrills to distract from how uneventful the movie ultimately is. For a story involving cult sacrifice, possession, and small town secrets, “Haunting Melissa” never comes across as sinister or as compelling as it should.
“Haunting Melissa” routinely feels as though more effort is devoted to showcasing the overall technical package than to selling the story everything is supposedly in service of. The film is never frightening and the scares, limited to ineffective jumps like Melissa’s friend being startled by her mirror reflection, wouldn’t work on a large screen, much less one burdened by glare in the palm of a hand.
Gimmicky presentation aside, “Haunting Melissa” is unremarkable. Indulgently overlong at 180 minutes, the film is in critical need of a Final Cut adept unafraid of the Delete key. The delivery method might deserve an “A for effort” for being innovative, keeping in mind that innovative is not a synonym for revolutionary, but the content certainly is not. You wouldn’t tolerate “Haunting Melissa” as a three-hour ho-hum horror movie in a traditional format. Why tolerate it as a buggy app with a disruptive distribution schedule requiring countless mobile device restarts and popup prompt dismissals?
NOTES: A three-minute epilogue becomes available some time after finishing chapter 11. There is also a 12-minute short film called “Haunting Ian” that can be found online and includes the Melissa Strogue character.
Review Score: 45