Dir: Zachary Donohue
Written By: Zachary Donohue, Lauren Thompson
Starring: Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, Matt Riedy, Adam Shapiro
UK release: Frightfest 2014
While conducting research for a thesis, on a chat site called The Den, an unsuspecting student stumbles upon what she believes is footage of a real murder. The killer then turns his attention to her, hacking into her life to make her pay for the transgression.
On paper, a horror film comprised entirely of computer images sounds headache-inducing. We already spend way too much time staring at Facebook, why waste any more in the cinema? Thankfully, The Den is so clever, so claustrophobic, so utterly involving, it sucks you in until it’s so suffocating the gimmick is barely even noticeable – almost as though the audience couldn’t log off, even if they wanted to.
Melanie Papalia is Elizabeth, a college student conducting a thesis on a website called The Den. At first, through a series of encounters with various strangers, via randomised video chats, she finds that most of its users are friendly, odd or very horny – sometimes all three. However, upon stumbling on what appears to be a very real video of a girl being viciously murdered, Elizabeth starts to panic and quickly logs off. The killer then turns his attention to her – emails are hacked, friends are stalked, and, in one particularly interesting sequence, an X-rated video is sent to her professor – unbeknownst to Elizabeth. However we, as the audience, get to watch it all happen in real time.
The Den is, therefore, slightly voyeuristic in parts, but the scares are considerably more effective as a result. Considering Papalia starred in the utterly cringe-inducing, yet similarly-themed, Smiley, she should know better than to mess around with the internet. Luckily, as Elizabeth is the only person on screen for much of the film, The Den gives her quite a bit more to do, along with a very real foe – as opposed to that weird, squidgy fellow with whom she had to contend previously. Utterly engaging throughout, Papalia ensures Elizabeth’s plight is terrifyingly real at times, especially as the audience is put in the position of knowing she has been hacked long before she does.
Supporting characters come and go, flitting in and out of view on her PC, and it’s hinted at that she may not be a terribly nice person, which is refreshing, but for the most part Elizabeth is an easy protagonist to root for and, unlike the typical slasher movie victim, she calls the cops immediately upon realising that something more sinister is afoot. Of course, as this is a horror film, it doesn’t really do much good.
The Den is a remarkable debut feature for director Donohue, and co-writer Thompson. Not only is the premise refreshingly inventive, but the execution is near-perfect, with each moment of tension bled to excruciating effect. It’s the kind of film you desperately want to tear your eyes away from, but just can’t. The kills are lengthy, visceral and shocking but the emphasis is on fear, not bloody nonsense.
The script is savvier, and smarter, than those of other web-based flicks, with references to faked shock videos and real, online terrorists scattered throughout. The premise has been thought through enough that, even though it requires a certain suspension of disbelief, given the recent spate of internet attacks and stalking attempts – GamerGate, in particular, comes to mind – it’s not hard to consider this really could happen.
The actual murder footage, which forms the catalyst of The Den, is harrowing, but there is a sense, at least at first, that maybe it is just a really well-made creation. The whole film plays on the idea of us not really knowing what’s out there, the difference between what’s real and what isn’t which, given the current state of the internet, is both fascinating and frightening.
The variously well-judged scares are some of the best in modern horror, with absolutely no music cues to signal them – in fact, there’s no score to speak of whatsoever, with the only background noise courtesy of Elizabeth’s laptop – while the violence is well-judged and suitably intense.
The Den is a very frightening film, with a sense of dread that comes from just how realistic its premise is. It wasn’t the only web-themed movie to screen at Frightfest, and Elijah Wood vehicle Open Windows even utilised a similar, image-based setup. However, as much as it necessitates a certain suspension of disbelief, it’s still much easier to get wrapped up in The Den because its scope is limited to one girl.
An intensely creepy, inescapably tense film, The Den expertly builds towards a bleak, yet darkly comic, conclusion. It’s worth seeking out for its meditation on internet terrorism alone, but as a standalone horror flick it’s remarkably effective. Thankfully, the ending also reiterates that the filmmakers know a hell of a lot more about the very real, dark side of the internet than, say, the dopes behind Smiley who thought it was a good idea to actually name a character Proxy.
If The Den is the future of web-based horror movies, the best is yet to come.