Review: ‘The Den’

Directed by Zachary Donahue
Starring Melanie Papalia, David Schlactenhaufen, Adam Shapiro & Anna Margaret Hollyman

Zachary Donahue‘s contemporarily relevant, albeit ultimately unfinished voyeuristic horror film ‘The Den‘ acts as a nihilistic reminder to the hidden capacities of the world wide web.  Essentially constructed as a found footage style genre-film where on-board computer cameras depict much of the action as it unfolds in front of, both, protagonist and viewers eyes, most (if not all) of ‘The Den‘ strengths are in its premise.  However, by that same token, its premise ultimately wields shaky and contrived execution acting within strict genre parameters as these and additionally hindered by an awkward sub 90 minute run time.

The_Den_Poster_2_20_14The Den‘ revolves around the anthropological research of Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia) upon her receipt of a grad school thesis grant delivered with the purpose in study of online behaviors. Elizabeth takes interest in a Chat Roulette style website known as THE DEN and, on a lengthy mission to explore the approach of its users, peruses and engages with it in an increasingly involved fashion. During one of her random video-chats, Elizabeth watches in horror as a female user seems to be tortured and murdered in front of the camera.

While the police dismiss the act as nothing more than a viral prank, Elizabeth is not as convinced, ultimately setting down a rabbit hole of her own in order to find where exactly the truth lies. As her life quickly spirals out of control, Elizabeth finds herself deep into the darkest corridors of the internet, eventually, finding herself trapped in a twisted game where her and her loved ones are targeted with the same grisly fate.

The Den‘ features a handful of genuine scares mostly in its setup, as well as the fact it is the first (at least) horror film to actively address peripheral issues involved with internet anonymity.  The film’s roots are grounded, however, more towards ‘Hostel‘ style sensation territory than ‘The Blair Witch Project‘ suspense, ultimately driving down the convenient road of torture porn rather than bypassing such conventions in the name of original execution, which is unfortunate.  I had mentioned how the films sub 90-minute runtime is its ultimate hinderance and that is because a host of further development could easily (and necessarily) have taken place should it have expanded; deeper character intentions, a more pronounced sense of place, as well as a much more socially relevant use of theme, all of which would create a multi dimensional foray into the nature of web-based intrigue, rather than its simple attempts in carving a place amongst an already oversaturated micro genre.  Just this month ‘Lucky Bastard‘ (another film focused on shock value rather than originality, albeit this case being hardcore sex), a found-footage style shock fest rooted in a misogynistic Pornhub-style domain has found release.

As a linear narrative, ‘The Den‘ is ultimately effective in its buildup and a letdown with its noticeably rushed climax.  It is a prime example of the frustrations born from a film that could have been much more.  In the age of digital technology and, especially, for a film grounded in its themes, a more prominent use of that technology could very well have been utilized here; a second screen experience (of which ‘App‘ has beaten everyone to the punch), for example, would have created a more layered multi media environment where character development and backstory could have developed in ways not possible within the confines of linear presentation. Regardless, for horror fans and gore fiends ‘The Den‘ will produce some kind of desired effect, however for the more casual viewer it may render feelings of unfulfillment due to the possibilities lost.

– Steve Rickinson

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