“THE DEN” (Movie Review)
The anonymity of the internet is the monster of THE DEN, a new POV/Found Footage title that aims (for at least the first half) to tell its story entirely from a computer screen. Opening with what must be a self-aware cheap jolt, director Zachary Donohue then unfurls a wide spectrum of malicious intent that Elizabeth (and by proxy you) is prey to by simply just being online. Viral pranks, swinging dicks and the harsh invalidation of your existence by someone immediately deciding they don’t want to chat with you give away to true evil, of course. As a film essentially about the horrors that await us online, THE DEN must go big in its cautionary tale and it does, alternately being effectively eerie and stumbling along the way.
While Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) might believe the internet a tool for global connectivity and warmly bringing the world closer together, she seemingly chooses the absolute worst online destination to prove such: The Den. A loose take on 2010 online fad ChatRoulette, The Den is a random webcam chat service in which you’ll likely land on live genitals, puppet genitals or someone requesting you show them your genitals. There’s also the fake supernatural scare (demon in the closet) and the all-too-real fake Russian roulette scare. If you’re sensing a theme it’s because Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson have crafted an online landscape in which people hunt for amusement via sex and violence solely. Extreme? Yes (most horror film aims to be), but maybe not entirely far off.
Midst the barrage of those seeking out cheap thrills, and being chastised by a real life social circle for only seeing her via webcam, Elizabeth is greeted by a user represented only by a smiling still photo of a pretty young woman. It’s immediately clear something altogether terrible hides behind it, but before Elizabeth can reject this menacing presence, the user has stuck their fingers into Elizabeth’s online life; which is to say at this point, her life.
It becomes clear that at any given time, we’re either on Elizabeth’s laptop directly, or hacked into it with this anonymous presence that proceeds to entangle the driven young woman into a mess of interpersonal relationships and eventually murder. While the initial attacks are familiar as far as cinematic online offenses go (sending out an intimate video to an Academic board, disrupting chats), they’re decidedly effective at piercing our online insecurity. Concepts like an unintentionally sent email or being blatantly ignored by a loved one or friend are anxiety-ridden ones that don’t fail to work their magic here.
It’s when THE DEN presents a more overtly physical threat that’s worth questioning. Commendably and frighteningly, THE DEN reveals its violence or sudden shadowy figures with little fanfare (read: musical stings), but during moments that strive to be particularly intense, Donohue cuts out of the The Den’s split screen or screen-within-a-screen view to a full look at the action. The intent is understood, but when much of the film has stuck within that (seemingly logistical) aesthetic, the choice is a jarring one. Moreover, when Elizabeth begins to present her plight to academic mentors and authorities, the film’s bleak view of the internet becomes a muddled bleak worldview. Almost everyone, online or not, responds to her with immediate hostility or disbelief. Such aggression may be entirely tethered to Donohue and Thompson’s doubts of a society now closer together, but onscreen it reads inauthentic and irritating in the face of what began as intimate and unsettling.
THE DEN’s last act brings Elizabeth to the literal den of the masked perpetrators raining horror down on her life. In the context of horror cinema, it’s none too exciting: a dank, dilapidated warehouse of sorts with victims tied to chairs. In conceptualizing the type of environment where the scourge of the internet thrives however, it’s certainly convincing. THE DEN then seeks to revive any lingering thoughtfulness with a final, grim beat, one that posits the internet is really just bringing us closer to true atrocities, and making our taste in entertainment more extreme and depraved in the process. If pursuers of any sort of dark, or extreme, interest hadn’t already suffered such concern over their psyche or sensitivity at some point, it could certainly be more impactful. A similar sentiment follows for if the filmmakers hadn’t made nearly everyone in the film out to be kind of terrible.
THE DEN is available in select theaters and On Demand March 14, 2014.