Directed by Zach Donohue
The best way to stand out in horror, or in any form of entertainment really, is to do something unique. The Den takes the found footage sub-genre of horror, which has been a bit over-exposed since filmmakers found out how inexpensively the movies can be made, and puts an entirely new and modern twist on it. The Den is basically comprised completely of webcam video.
I know what you’re thinking: How can you make a movie from just stuff captured on a webcam? This is even more confined than your average found footage movie as the limitations of webcams and how to realistically work them into the film seem to present an insurmountable challenge. Certainly director Zach Donohue in his first full-length feature film saw this challenge as one he wanted to conquer and went out and made everything fit in a realistic and suspenseful manner that resulted in a movie that not only worked, even within these restrictions, but actually thrived.
The film revolves around Elizabeth Benton (played nicely by Melanie Papalia), a woman who receives a grant to study behavior on a social media chat website called The Den. While attempting to interact with as many random strangers as she can, Elizabeth finds all sorts of freaks – from the amusing to the strange to the downright creepy – but repeatedly runs into a user whose webcam doesn’t seem to be working and just shows a still shot of a smiling young woman. The user behind this account is not who it initially appears to be, and Elizabeth suddenly finds herself fighting for her life and the lives of everyone she loves.
The fact that the filmmakers decided to go with a complete webcam experience for the audience adds an additional level of tension as, at times, we see Elizabeth’s actual computer desktop from her point of view as she is opening up chat windows and email, and it simply looks like your average computer screen. After watching, this sticks with you. The next time you sit down at your computer, it’s very difficult not to think back to The Den as you’re opening your own work on the computer and wonder just how many freaks are right on the other side of that screen, waiting to jump out and grab you. The internet can indeed be considered a new breed of The Big Bad Wolf; it has teeth and will certainly eat you alive if you aren’t careful.
However, the limitations of the webcam must be noted as using this technique is a double-edged sword. It brings a unique feel to the movie, but as the action starts to pick up and things begin to get really interesting, as a viewer you find yourself wanting to drop the webcam angle and actually see everything that’s going on. You get the idea that there is so much going on outside your small point-of-view, like you’re looking at everything through a peephole. But then, there again is another positive to the technique. Donohue feeds right into the voyeur in all of us, showing the story in a way we’re not really supposed to see, as we eavesdrop on all of Elizabeth’s conversations.
There is a lot to like about The Den, including a nice amount of F/X in the film. And it is well done. In fact, there are a couple of scenes with some really stand-out, top-notch moments that will certainly make you sit up in your chair. Additionally, the story is good and very tight. The run time is rather short, but Donohue gets the point across and the whole thing gets wrapped up nice and neatly before it ever feels like it’s dragging on at all. It’s always better to leave them wanting more than feeling like enough is enough. And the story itself is so much more than it initially appears to be. Just when you think you’ve got the whole thing figured out and you know who’s who and what’s what, The Den changes the entire game on you (in a fair way, I might add) and opens up a new and interesting layer to the story.
Much credit must also be given to Melanie Papalia, who plays Elizabeth and absolutely carries the film. She appears in just about every scene and normally right up close in your face, web chat style. She’s a beautiful actress who manages to easily handle the transition from excited grant recipient to terrorized victim of a web stalker. If you can’t get into her performance, this movie is going to fall flat for you, but I couldn’t imagine anyone not digging her or her work in The Den. She’s very likable in the role.
The other members of the cast do well as the different relations in Elizabeth’s life (her sister, BFF, boyfriend, and guy who would like to be her boyfriend). When she interacts with them, it feels like you are really watching web chats. The entire experience seems very natural and realistic. And the fact that it does seem real cannot be understated in its importance to the film. Donohue is attempting to give viewers a look directly into the life of Elizabeth and her social interactions. If these interactions don’t feel real, if it feels like acting, the entire film would suffer, as it would in any film. Fortunately the cast did a very nice job selling the whole thing.
The Den is a short, quick jab to the face of a horror movie. It hits on some timely and pertinent topics, not only the physical dangers of internet interactions but their addictive possibilities as well. We all know those people who may as well have a ‘Like’ button stamped on their foreheads because their faces are buried in Facebook constantly. Donohue took a chance on an outside-the-box film, and it paid off nicely. Viewers will be drawn into the concise story and enjoy the twist at the end. Nicely done.
4 out of 5