It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.
The Den is yet another indie film that seeks to save money by positioning itself as part of the found footage genre. I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with found footage films and, in all honesty, didn’t go into the film with the most open of minds. Surprisingly, the film initially changed my mind with a solid and creepy opening forty minutes. It then squandered all of the good will it built in me with an increasingly sloppy, contrived, and nihilistic third act.
Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is a sociology grad student who has been awarded a grant to do a study of the Internet video chat culture. Specifically, she plans to spend hundreds of hours per month, chatting with complete strangers at random and recording the interactions. To do this, she spends most of her time on a site called “The Den.”
Early on, the study goes exactly as you would expect. For every normal conversation Elizabeth has, she endures dozens of exhibitionists, pranksters, and creepy guys propositioning her for sex. As the weeks go by, Elizabeth’s refusal to leave The Den takes a toll on her relationships. Her boyfriend Damien (David Schlachtenhaufen) feels neglected. Her friends Max (Adam Shapiro) and Jenny (Lily Holleman) unsuccessfully try to get her to spend just a little time with them that isn’t via webcam. She even refuses to visit her very pregnant sister Lyn (Anna Margaret Hollyman), lest she miss an intriguing online conversation.
The best parts of The Den are these early scenes establishing Elizabeth as someone who is addicted to the Internet, but justifies it by claiming she has to be online all the time for her study. Using webcams to capture not only her conversations with her friends, but also her interactions with random strangers that run the gamut from amusing to disturbing, co-writer/director Zachary Donohue manages to justify the film’s found footage concept. Even more impressively, he has plenty to say about the way people increasingly feel more comfortable spending time together online as opposed to in-person human contact.
And then the rest of the movie happens.
During a chat, Elizabeth witnesses what appears to be the brutal murder of a young woman. When the police—in the first of a series of unbelievable plot contrivances—refuse to investigate because it might be a hoax, Elizabeth starts her own investigation. It isn’t long before her computer is hacked and her friends start disappearing. From that point, the film plods down a predictable course that takes it into torture porn territory.
Even with as predictably as the last act of the film plays out, the thing that annoys me about The Den is the same thing that bugs me about most found footage films: the characters continue to walk around with their cameras catching everything, even after they no longer have motivation to do so. Two different sequences find characters exploring darkened rooms with only the light from their smartphones providing any illumination. Why? Because Donohue desperately needs to continue the illusion that the characters have a motivation to continue filming. The problem comes from the fact that they never try to find a different, better source of lighting—like turning on the overhead lights.
Once Donohue was unable to justify the continued use of the found footage conceit, there was no turning back for me. Every annoying aspect of the film became magnified. From the predictability of the plot to the contrivance of smart characters making stupid decisions to a purely ugly look at humanity, the third act was beyond frustrating as it marched to its uninspired ending.
The Den could have been a decent horror flick touching on the way technology allows us to communicate with almost anyone, while making it more difficult to connect with those closest to us. Instead it settles for being yet another dreary found footage variation on the slasher film. What a waste.
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