BUY FROM AMAZON: CLICK HERE!
STUDIO IFC Midnight
RUNNING TIME 77 minutes
• Director and Producer Commentary
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
There are some places on the internet you just shouldn’t go… places with too many penises.
Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, Adam Shapiro
After receiving a grant for her graduate thesis, Elizabeth Benton logs onto a video-chat site known as The Den on a mission to explore the habits of its users. During one of her random video-chats, Elizabeth watches in horror as a teenage girl is gruesomely murdered in front of her webcam. While the police dismiss it as a viral prank, Elizabeth believes what she saw is real and takes it upon herself to find the truth.
Congratulations! You’ve just completed your first low-budget, found footage horror film. Making movies is hard, so as a token of my appreciation, here’s an audiovisual metaphor for the celebration I’m experiencing in my head:
So tell me, now that you’ve got a finished film and it’s been picked up for VOD distribution, whaddaya want now? Oh. You… you want me to see it? Huh. Well, why don’t you have a seat, and we’ll get this process started. Let me get out my questionnaire.
Okay, question one. Does the subject matter of the film pertain to demonic possession, demons, and/or the devil? No? What about ghosts, specters, or apparitions of any kind? No? Looking good so far. Okay, question two. Does the title of the film fit the following convention: The Blank of Firstname Lastname? No? Good. Does the film feature cameras mounted on or in unconventional objects, like dogs or bionic eyes? No? Wow, this is looking good. Does the film display a fundamental understanding of the technologies it uses to establish its conceit? Yes? Wow, that’s impressive. Lastly, what’s the running time? SEVENTY-SEVEN MINUTES? And it’s on Netflix, you say? Count me in!
Though its conceit might be a tad silly, The Den is a solid little movie, one that experiments with found footage in fun and interesting ways. The majority of the film plays like a screen recording from our protagonist’s MacBook Pro, complete with desktop, menu bar, Excel spreadsheets, and spam e-mails. The premise is simple enough to be explained through what amounts to a short PowerPoint presentation: The Den is a chat service. Think Skype meets Facetime meets ChatRoulette. It’s easy to use, and as ubiquitous as Facebook. You can talk to your friends or get connected with random strangers. It’s got desktop and mobile apps. Liz (Melanie Papalia) wants to use The Den’s random chats as research for her thesis. By some minor miracle, she gets a research grant to sit around and chat with randos all day, gathering data.
Liz believes that random chatting shows “human behavior as it is seen in its most transparent form”, which is an incredibly cynical philosophy for such a bubbly young woman. Very quickly, Liz begins to notice just how strange people can be when they’re on the internet, and the movie takes great delight in connecting Liz with funny bit characters. There’s the exhibitionist who flaps his dick around. There’s a guy in a bunny suit in Tel Aviv, and a viking dude wearing a bikini in Van Nuys. There’s even a chubby dominatrix from Newark, slapping some guy’s tush with a riding crop. Oh, and who could forget the 2-foot penis puppet, complete with puppet scrotum? Not this guy. Just like the real internet, there’s enough nudity and levity to be found in The Den to make it feel believable.
Don’t let this parade of dicks fool you, though: this is a horror movie. And because it’s a horror movie, Liz witnesses a graphic murder in one of her random chats. This event is the first link in a chain of abductions and home invasions, some of which are genuinely upsetting. There are some really shocking moments in the film; moments that trade blood for quick, efficient brutality. The Den may not have the dread of Paranormal Activity, but I don’t think that’s a negative. The film still engages and entertains between its big shocks.
What really sold me on The Den is that it shows an understanding of its technologies. Unlike in Barry Levinson’s odious techno-horror The Bay, the portrayal, function, and limitation of these technologies feels real. The Den isn’t perfect, and one could nitpick it to death, but what I love is that Liz is naïve about technology in a very real way. For instance: she suffers a major computer crash. The next thing we see after the all-too-familiar kernel panic screen (the Mac equivalent of the BSOD) is Liz’s tech-savvy friend using Disk Utility and a data recovery app to see if Liz’s lost data is still on her hard drive. Just like a lot of panicked people I met when I worked at an Apple Store, Liz didn’t back her shit up. “Don’t open up attachments from strangers,” quips her tech savvy pal. No one in The Den uses their computer like a movie hacker, and VFX supervisor Perry Kroll used real elements from the Mac OS X and iOS interfaces to create a believable look for the film. This goes a long way, and makes me believe director Zach Donohue actually understands his audience.
Though Liz may be naïve about technology, she’s no dummy. After she witnesses the murder, she does what a lot of characters in horror films wouldn’t do: she goes to the police. They’re not much help, but they do have a presence throughout the film. The footage she records in the police station is a bit of a stretch, but at least the film is going out of its way to make Liz feel human. What I really appreciate about The Den is that it’s using its ridgid, computer-bound format to its advantage. Case in point: Liz buys a gun. But unlike what other found footage movies would do, there’s no footage of her going to a gun shop. She doesn’t have a line of dialogue explaining that she bought a gun. We don’t even see her holding a gun. Instead, she does the millenial thing: she watches a shitty handgun safety video on YouTube.
While some will no doubt find Liz to be a frustrating protagonist, the film allows her to be multifaceted. She lacks knowledge and experience in certain areas, but is fairly bright and well-spoken. Her friends and boyfriend come off flat in comparison, but this is Liz’s show, and Melanie Papalia plays her well. Not everything about the film works as well as she does, but I gotta give writers Zachary Donohue and Lauren Thompson credit for actually giving her somewhere to go in the third act. This is a found footage movie with a real ending, not just a cut-to-black cocktease (like the initially promising Willow Creek). This is an incredibly cynical film, one that promises “human behavior as it is seen in its most transparent form”, which calls to mind the bleak nihilism of Eli Roth’s Hostel. The implications of The Den are deeply unpleasant, but it’s so fast-paced and smartly made that anyone who isn’t completely fed up with found footage should give it a shot. And hey, it’ll only take seventy-seven minutes of your time.
So the flick is good, but should you buy it on DVD? Well… this is a film designed for HD. The resolution of the DVD format doesn’t do the film justice. The fuzzy, unreadable computer interface is a detriment to immersion. Buy it on Blu-Ray, or catch it on Netflix. Audio (Dolby Digital 5.1) is fine on the DVD, but the transfer is bad enough for me to dismiss the disc outright.
There is a silver lining, though: If you’re into commentaries, this one’s a winner. Director Zachary Donohue and two of the film’s producers provide a wealth of insight into the film’s production. The featurette is a brief EPK piece, and can be skipped. It boasts that the film was shot with the actors speaking live over Skype, but the commentary says that technical problems prevented them from doing that. Whoops.
One final note: there’s a quote on the front cover from Patrick Cooper, who used to write DVD reviews for CHUD. Go, Patrick!
Out of a Possible 5 Stars