Written by: Zachary Donohue, Lauren Thompson
Directed by: Zachary Donohue
Starring: Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, and Matt Riedy
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
He wants you to watch.
The Den reminds us that horror movies donít have to scour the corners of the globe to find screwed-up junk anymore--with the internet, the worst, most horrible possibilities of mankindís imagination are just a few clicks away. Somehow, one of our best achievements as a species is often transformed into one of the worst, and filmmakers Zach Donohue and Lauren Thompson have mined its unsettling potential with a film that cleverly blends the found footage technique with the stuff of slasher movies.
For her graduate thesis, college student Liz Benton (Melanie Papalia) proposes to explore The Den, a fictional social media chat site (think Chatroulette, who didnít lend their brand for reasons that become obvious) where users randomly cycle through possible buddies from all over the world. Her initial findings turn up the typical sort of behavior: bad pranks, unrelenting misogyny, and just plain boring folks. Itís not until she receives a mysterious message from a South American viewer that her study takes an interesting and rather dark turn: not only is her computer mysteriously hacked, but she also receives increasingly disturbing messages from the same user, with the transmissions culminating in a frightening snuff video.
While The Den has all the trappings of a junk thriller (itís a mostly ludicrous parade of increasingly unbelievable events), thereís something at least a little bit genuinely disturbing about it. Maybe it helps that Iím still slightly technophobic about the internet when it comes to viruses and hacks, and I sort of love that this movie is tapping into such unfounded paranoia much in the same way movies were treating computers decades agoóI donít think itís all that possible for a computer to be so easily remotely hacked like one is here, but who knows? The internet is a vicious, silicon Wild West in many respects, at least if Lizís investigation is any indication: even though she brings her story to the police, they dismiss it as a possible hoax and donít have the resources to trace the source of the video in the first place.
Much of the filmís effectiveness also owes to its found footage aesthetic, at least until it degenerates into another instance of characters shakily running about darkened corridors and shrieking during the climax. But up until that point, director Donohue employs a digital pastiche to relay his story, and it yields a disquieting pseudo-snuff vibe as we watch Lizís ordeal unfold through a variety of screens (her own computer, those of her friends and family, GoPro cams, etc.), an approach that subtly forces us to confront just how much time we dedicate to the proxy between ourselves and the rest of the world. What does it take to truly jar our sensibilities anymore? I think it says a lot that most of the characters are quick to assume Liz is just being trolled, as if thereís an inherent distrust engendered by the internet that renders it an unreal landscape where anything is possible but nothing is believable.
Beneath these implications rests a darn good little slasher flick thatís sort of reminiscent of the Ti West and Joe Swanberg segments of V/H/S. It especially recalls the former during the early-going, where itís not quite clear just where The Den is going; with a couple of spooky nighttime interludes that unfold while Liz sleeps in the background, itís easy to assume weíre headed down the Paranormal Activity path until the film reveals its hand with the stalk-and-slash elements (at which point it sets viewers down the Saw path). These sequences are taut and suspenseful enough, as they really play off of the dramatic irony most slashers revel in, with Liz even becoming an audience surrogate during a bit where her sister is being stalked while she helplessly watches on.
Despite its somewhat snuffy bursts of violence, The Den doesnít wallow exclusively in this type of imagery. Even its detour into murky, grungy dungeons feels horrific without resorting to much grisliness, which is a testament to the killer idea this film has exploited, not to mention Papaliaís skill at admirably shouldering the proceedings (I especially love her no-bullshit approach whenever sheís confronted with the internetís usual hive of scum and villainyóyou know, the guys who just want to see her boobs). It succeeds as both a cheap thriller and as a bellwether of modern anxieties, especially since the sinister forces behind the terror are so banal as to be perfect. The Den ends on an almost weirdly, darkly comic note that allows it to shift its gaze and fix it upon the voyeurs of the world looking to revel in the repulsive, sordid channels of the net with the comfort of anonymity and the buffer of a screen. You almost have to wonder what the film is saying about its audience, too. Rent it!
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