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A young woman studying the habits of webcam chat users from the apparent safety of her apartment witnesses a brutal murder online and is quickly immersed in a nightmare in which she and her loved ones are targeted for the same grisly fate as the first victim.Written by
The Den is the ultimate horror film about technology in the twenty- first century, shot almost entirely through the use of webcams and through an online, video-chatting website in the vein of something like Skype or Stickam. It reminds me of Joe Swanberg's short film in the horror-anthology V/H/S, but taken to more sadistic and frightening levels. If a film that made me quietly fear entering my username and password to log into my computer after watching it, I'd say it's a pretty effective piece of work.
The Den, as stated, is filmed entirely through a direct-capture card, or an accessory commonly used for recording activity on a computer that looks as if you are sitting at a desk and watching somebody else's computer. It's often neat, but occasionally results in buffering or glitchiness, a technique that director/co-writer Zachary Donohue employs with great effect, creating the kind of flair Grindhouse films of the seventies inherently included, like film-breaks and color that looked like it had been acid-washed. The film concerns a grad student named Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia), who is monitoring the habits of webcam users on a website by the name of "The Den." She spends most of her days cycling through nudity, vulgar kids, horny souls, foreigners determined to scam the naive, rude people, pranks, annoying memes, and the socially awkward. It's almost like sitting at a virtual bus- stop.
Elizabeth is working off of a lofty grant she generously received for her research, but is growing disillusioned when her work doesn't seem to be resulting in any interesting or noteworthy correlations. The ho-hum clicking becomes interrupted when she encounters a feed of what looks to be a woman being mutilated and finally violently murdered, as well as finding her email hacked, her webcam intercepted, and her files wiped by the same person up to killing these women. The police are understandably lax, telling Elizabeth that if they investigated every suspicious video online, they would never get any of the work done in the outside world, due to the amount of phony stage-craft on the internet. Elizabeth is appalled and scared when her friends start to disappear, even her on/off boyfriend, and quickly realizes that she may be the next person to be killed by the webcam murderer.
If the way The Den was shot wasn't sufficient enough, the manner in which the technology is elaborated on and executed is entertaining to watch as well. Writers Donohue and Lauren Thompson take time to tag the bases of all the odd people that often make up these Chat Roulette kind of websites, cycling through the people in a way that doesn't feel oversimplifying nor gratuitous. The internet houses many things that can easily shock and provoke and that's precisely what The Den attempts to do and, mostly, succeeds. It creates a technological environment, an inherently neutral environment in terms of mood, and creates it into a frighteningly unpredictable medium that lends itself to the horror genre. In addition, the amount of hacking and tampering shown in The Den should make any avid user of computers or smartphones fearful; it's only an informal reminder of the effects ubiquitous technology can bring.
The only issue I take with The Den is, not the lackadaisical methods of the law-enforcement like some of my peers have, but the pacing of the story, which feels like it's racing against itself. At seventy- two minutes, an already incredibly short watch that zips past you almost as quickly as a TV show, it's a wonder why Donohue and Thompson didn't take more time to develop the technological manipulation of Elizabeth with slowburn technique. Did they fear audiences would be alienated by the style? This fault isn't necessarily so apparent in the first thirty minutes, but when things begin to work against Elizabeth, the film feels like it's now tagging bases not in terms of being effective but in terms of trying to race to the invisible finish-line and conclude before the audience presumably starts checking the time.
Nonetheless, the effectiveness and terror The Den brings is real, and the ending only works to further reiterate that humans have sick fantasies that have now been brought into the mainstream thanks to the internet. It reminds me of Lucky Bastard, a seldom-seen, found footage horror film about a man who wins a date and complementary sex with a porn star for a website, showing the impact and far- reaching abilities of smut in a way that was equal parts shaming the audience but devilishly compelling all the more. For some reason, horror films set online get a bum rap, with Lucky Bastard and even the other commendable cyber-thriller Untraceable receiving numerous amounts of unwarranted hate. The Den, like its genre-predecessors, will likely fall into the category of being underrated, but the issues it proposes and depicts, whether we see them or not, will exist anyway - and that's the beauty of horror films set on the internet.
Starring: Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, and Matt Riedy. Directed by: Zachary Donohue.
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