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‘The Den’ Review – Because the Internet

 

Directed by Zachary Donohue, The Den stars Melanie Papalia as Elizabeth, who is embarking on a research grant project about the internet, specifically a Chat Roulette-style site called The Den. With university backing, she engages with The Den’s online community basically 24/7, looking for (and very rarely finding) anything resembling normal conversation.

But that’s the internet, right? If anything, this movie is an allegory about the weird ways being “always online” has perverted our sense of closeness. We might be able to talk to someone three thousand miles away via computer screen, but it won’t deter us from asking complete strangers to expose themselves or – worse – exposing ourselves to them.

Telling line: “It’s the internet. You should have expected something like this.”

Reminds Me Of: The Strangers; The Last Broadcast; Manhunt (video game); Catfish.

Recommend? Yes!, given that you are not entirely exhausted with found footage.

The full review is after the jump.


I’m reading a book called Ghost in the Wires. It’s about Kevin Mitnick, at one time the world’s most wanted hacker. One of the overarching themes of the book is that Mitnick broke into people’s stuff for no other reason than he could. He wasn’t interested in money or fame but just the challenge of seeing how far he could go.

Similarly, the justification “because I want to” is a particularly frightening one, especially when applied to horror movies. It is what makes The Strangers so utterly terrifying. The killers in that movie lack a motive, so appeasing them was a pointless exercise. No motive. Ugh. What a terrifying idea. The same seems to be true of the particular brand of sadomasochistic villainy in The Den.

Directed by Zachary Donohue, The Den stars Melanie Papalia as Elizabeth, who is embarking on a research grant project about the internet, specifically a Chat Roulette-style site called The Den. With university backing, she engages with The Den’s online community basically 24/7, looking for (and very rarely finding) anything resembling normal conversation.

But that’s the internet, right? If anything, this movie is an allegory about the weird ways being “always online” has perverted our sense of closeness. We might be able to talk to someone three thousand miles away via computer screen, but it won’t deter us from asking complete strangers to expose themselves or – worse – exposing ourselves to them.

Anyway, the project is derailed when Elizabeth witnesses a Den user murdered on-camera, and she spends the rest of the movie attempting to uncover just what sort of darkness dwells beneath the veneer of impromptu social interaction. Eventually, Elizabeth’s friends and family become targets, as does Elizabeth herself.

Before moving into talking about the movie, I have to say that the sort of social commentary embedded into The Den is what initially drew me in. It captures the weird sort of uninhibited version of the internet people make fun of, and to a large degree it nails how people make manifest their biggest (though sometimes eerily secret) desires for all the digital world to see. How does perceived anonymity empower people to be their basest, most dickish selves?

The movie begins with a wide open premise and uses it in order to inflict plenty of conscious visual violence on the audience. In context, the violence feels at home, because the concept of a random web chat is utterly without context itself. If you have no idea what might pop into view, then you’re left with a lingering sense that it could be anything at all, and that is unsettling. Even beyond the murders, you (and Elizabeth) must be prepared for whatever is set to pop up onscreen next. The potential for sexual invasion is as pervasive a threat as the violence itself.

And it speaks to a larger degree about the level to which women are abused online.  It takes the point-of-view of someone who is more-or-less internalizing all of the internet’s oddity in a single film, from exhibitionists to misogynists and lonely assholes who cannot connect with the world around them. What this movie has to say about a typical woman’s experience online is equal to (if not more so) than the horror angle of the film. The Den simply gets at how easily people are dehumanized and turned into objects to be acted upon. If you’re a dude, you might not realize how many grammatically-incorrect (and creepy) solicitations for “boobs” women encounter on random sites. I don’t, because I am also a dude, but I recognize it happens, and I also recognize that it sucks.

/rant.

I acknowledge that part of the reason I like the movie is that I felt connected to the underlying statement about internet culture, but The Den also works on a purely horrific level. It doesn’t linger on violence in a pornographic way (which is kind of ironic, considering we’re talking about the internet here) but features quick, yet brutal, sequences that are starkly unsettling. The jump scares aren’t just present to spike the story but feel ingrained in the menace that accompanies the overall “Digital Peeping Tom” vibe. The feeling of a sick, demented voyeurism hovers over the movie, which adds to the snuff film grime of some of its content, but it never wallows in it. There is plenty of sunshine, plenty of bright colors, and some time to breathe between the slowly-enveloping darkness of the movie.

Visually, it looks great. I’m not sure about the budget, but I never once encountered something that made me question the production value. The Den has few tell-tale signs of no budget filmmaking. It might seem like a low bar to say “the movie looks like a movie,” but plenty of genre flicks – especially ones about “the internet” – look like creepypasta somehow smuggled onto YouTube or Netflix. The Den, by contrast, is well-executed, and the chat sequences are believable, which give it a verisimilitude that carries through the entirety of the film. The chat window and Den program look real enough, and the intro sequence integrates various aspects of technology seamlessly, cutting out needless exposition (and you know how I hate needless exposition!).

If I do have a complaint about the movie, it’s that the final act resorts to things one usually sees in the final act of horror / action movies, but it never actually loses its well-paced tension. The last sequence has its own Hostel-y vibe, and perhaps that elevates the movie’s ‘mythology’ or ‘lore’ or whatever, but it’s also pretty horrific, and the first-person view enhances the effect of the jump scares. I will also say that the ending is reminiscent of one of my favorite old video games, Manhunt, by RockStar. It has a blunt, grimy quality that is just unsettling enough to work. It’s brutal but not in a trying-too-hard sort of way, like some of the torture porn we saw in the mid-aughts. It gets to the violence but also gets it over with, without holding all the bloody bits up to the camera for us to have to sift through.

The Den belies a very cynical view of humanity but one that is not entirely undeserved, given what we know about the internet. (Ever seen 2 Guys, 1 Hammer?) The anonymity of the internet only exposes our basest desires, and even when on camera, people tend to ignore the social contract, and this movie lays it all out within context of an interesting, visually-striking narrative.

Of course, the caveat is that if you don’t care for found footage, this invariably won’t appeal to you. However, The Den is way more clever than its paranormally-obsessed brethren. There are no devils or ghosts here, and the monsters of the film are only made more disturbing by the presence of the “regular” people in the margins of the narrative, the flashers, exhibitionists, and dick puppet makers. I highly recommend this movie.

The Den is available for rent on VOD and Amazon Instant Video.

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