A horror film in which the audience decides the story

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

When you’re seeing a horror movie in a theater, audience exclamations like “Pick up the knife!” and “Don’t go back in there!” are often as much a part of the soundtrack as the musical score.

For his latest project, Southfield-based director Damon Merchant created a horror movie where the characters actually listen.

“I, Victim,” which will screen at the Emagine Novi on Fridays and Saturdays through the end of the month, invites audiences to directly influence its plot by voting through a special mobile app. The story follows three characters who are trying to make their way through six different serial killers’ lairs, and audiences repeatedly get to choose how their protagonists react to various scenarios.

“I always felt like that’s what people want,” Merchant laughs. “Let’s have people put up or shut up. Let’s have people go to the theater and act out, with the characters on the screen, what they would do if they were in that situation.”

For Merchant, who runs the IT company Corbus Systems by day, designing the mobile app for the film was the easiest part of the filmmaking process. The numerous alternate plotlines in the film add up to over five hours of completed footage, which took Merchant and his small cast and crew two years to shoot on almost no budget.

The film, “I, Victim,” follows three characters who are trying to make their way through different serial killers’ lairs.

As a result, the film’s plot is distinctly different every time it’s screened. It can run as short as one hour, or as long as two and a half hours. All the protagonists, or none of them, may survive. Merchant says that sets the project apart from other “choose your own adventure”-style media, where audiences’ choices lead to one of just two or three set endings.

“In this case, your decision takes you on a brand new path, period,” he says. “We’re not looping back around. We’re not cheating the experience. What we have is the most honest implementation of an interactive experience ever created.”

It’s an ambitious project, especially considering that “I, Victim” is only Merchant’s second film. Merchant launched his production company, Corbus Films, in 2010 to make further use of filmmaking gear he’d purchased to make a commercial for Corbus Systems. Merchant’s first film, “23232 Merchant Street,” debuted the same year.

Corbus Films is very much a family affair. Merchant’s sister Deborah Freeman, with whom Merchant made short films as a child, is now Corbus Films’ marketing and promotions manager. Lortensia Merchant, Damon Merchant’s wife, has executive-produced both Corbus films so far and did special effects and makeup for “I, Victim.”

Lortensia Merchant says she originally thought her husband was “crazy” for wanting to make his first movie, but she changed her mind when actors actually showed up for his casting calls.

“I hopped right on board and I’m on board to this day,” Lortensia Merchant says. “It’s awesome.”

A scene from “I, Victim,” by Southfield director Damon Merchant.

Damon Merchant says audiences have responded well to beta-test screenings of “I, Victim,” including two audience members who continued using their phones to vote while they were taking bathroom breaks. (“I’m proud of that, I guess,” he laughs.)

Damon Merchant will jump right into his next film project in November, featuring another new technology that he’s keeping under wraps for now.

“I want other Detroit filmmakers to realize that we don’t have to continue making movies in the traditional manner,” he says. “We can do something that has never been done before. I want Michigan to rise up and be that new hub of innovative entertainment.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor based freelance writer.

‘I, Victim’

9 p.m. Fri. and Sat., Oct. 21-22 and 28-29

Emagine Novi

44425 W. 12 Mile, Novi

Tickets $10

Recommended for ages 18 and up due to violent and sexual content

(888) 319-3456

corbusfilms.com/ivictim