Stream to Scream: “THE DEN”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
While many fright fans were surprised that it took the film industry so long to bring a supernaturally charged digital horror film like UNFRIENDED to the table (FEARDOTCOM not withstanding), the reason may be more simple than you could have imagined. As every reader of this column can tell you, the internet can actually be a genuinely dangerous place, and hence, the fear that can be culled from the human horror of the ‘net has been a much more logical endeavor. And while the idea of telling a scary story from the POV of a computer screen may inherently disinterest some, those horror hounds might miss some genre gems as a result, including Zachary Donohue’s online chiller THE DEN.
THE DEN follows a young female college student who embarks on a grant-funded study to observe human behavior on a ChatRoulette-meets-Skype service called “The Den” for a year straight. After experiencing innocuous pranks and random acts of self-exposure in these chatrooms, she soon begins to receive ominous messages from an avatar of another young woman. Soon, the messages become more threatening, and after witnessing what she thinks is an actual murder from the avatar, she begins to realize that she might be in real danger and that no one in her life is safe.
While one might immediately think THE DEN would descend into a more horrific take on CATFISH, the film certainly goes into much more sinister and brutal territory than one might imagine. In fact, THE DEN almost relies on your lack of expectation to sneak in some real shocks and scares, even if the occasional logic lapse nearly throws the whole thing off-course (really, who enters a dark, empty house once a loved one goes missing?). To that point, THE DEN also plays with that unpredictability in a way that makes its restricted viewpoint even more cinematic: what THE DEN lacks in camera technique, it more than makes up for in its clever use of restraint and perspective.
Working on a strong script co-written by Lauren Thompson, director Zachary Donohue gets much mileage out of the film’s conceit, and rather than wedging in a great story to the confines of a computer screen, he instead crafts the story around its unique setting. In fact, Donohue’s use of the computer screen as a storytelling space is nearly harmonious, and really drives home the horror once he reveals the true nature of the antagonists. Likewise, Bernard Hunt’s versatile cinematography and Joseph Pettinati’s skilled editing makes THE DEN a very immersive and effective experience, punctuated even further by John Wrightson, George Troester and Perry Kroll’s great FX contributions on the film.
THE DEN also features excellent performances, most of which are incredibly naturalistic and genuinely leads you to root for the characters. Melanie Papalia is simply superb in the lead role, offering a performance that feels as believable as it is intense and vulnerable. Meanwhile, David Schlachtenhaufen, Adam Shapiro, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Matt Riedy and Katija Pevec are great as well in their comparatively light screen time, especially considering how close-to-the-vest they play their respective roles.
While not necessarily destined to be a classic, THE DEN grabs the potential of its premise and rides in into legitimately terrifying territory. And to its credit, THE DEN’s final moments does resonate rather eerily among the viewer, especially those who are less skeptical of the existence of the antagonist’s motivations in the real world. After all, THE DEN reminds you that you can find anything on the internet, but just be careful what you wish for.
THE DEN is now streaming on Netflix Instant.