22nd Aug2014

Frightfest 2014: ‘The Den’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, Matt Riedy, Adam Shapiro, Victoria Hanlin, Matt Lasky, Brian Bell | Written by Zachary Donohue, Lauren Thompson | Directed by Zachary Donohue

The-Den-Papalia

It may seem, given my past reviews of found footage movies, that all I do is spew bile and vitriol when it comes to a lot of these particular movies but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to still give the genre a a fair shake. Good job too, otherwise I would have missed out on a great example of it in The Den.

The idea of using the internet (and webcams) is nothing new in horror, it’s cropped up in dozens of movies, some good, a lot bad. With the advent of webcams, CCTV and “always-connected” devices, any good horror movie villain would – given that using the net is his or her modus operandi – have almost total control over their victims lives. Imagine someone else controlling what we see online, manipulating our emails, our cyber chats. Everything you do online could be at the mercy of someone else, if they were technically adept enough that is. That’s at the very core of Zachary Donohue’s The Den.

The film follows Elizabeth Benton who, receiving a grant for her graduate thesis, 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. Soon she finds herself trapped in a twisted game in which she and her loved ones are now targeted for the same grisly fate as the first victim.

Given that The Den is a film which tells its story in front of a webcam, it seems logical that any lead in this film would have be able to hold his or her own in front of the camera with only the “computer” to play off against. So casting someone who many would consider an unknown in the role, you’d think would be a gamble. However actress Melanie Papalia is no stranger to the genre,  having also starred in the web-based horror movie Smiley and the After Dark Horror production Super Hybrid 3D. She currently knocks it out the park on the USA network drama Suits as pull-no-punches secretary Amy, having previously carved out one hell of a career on Canadian television (yes folks, Papalia is another in the long-line of awesome Canadian scream-queens). Here she convincingly plays a woman on the edge, a woman whose perfect life – in terms of both career and relationship – swiftly goes down the tubes, her sanity slowly unravelling before us on camera. It’s a tour-de-force role for anyone to handle and yet Papalia makes it look easy.

Melanie Papalia’s historied experience is matched only by director Zachary Donohue’s inexperience. Yet The Den doesn’t feel like a first-time feature. Donohue skillfully mixes webcam footage, chat rooms conversations, cameraphone footage and CCTV in a manner which keeps the frenetic pace going right until the final frame. The pace is almost roller-coaster ride like – once we, the audience, are dragged into the sordid world of the webchat community in which Elizabeth aims to make her name, we’re strapped in, unable to escape our participation in the events that unfold on the screen. It’s a credit to writer/director Donohue, and his co-writer Lauren Thompson, that even the most far-fetched aspects of the film do seem plausible. A lot of that is undoubtedly down to the pacing, as we aren’t given much time to think about what has just occurred; and because, in the end, everything about The Den is actually set up perfectly for the fantastic final coda.

 The Den is not perfect – like a lot of found footage films there are certain liberties taken with what and how the camera sees, especially when our heroine Liz leaves the comfort of her apartment. Although kudos to the filmmakers for figuring out a plot device that allows the found footage action to continue even when Liz is on the run from her assailant! There are also a number of scenes that, given everything is viewed through webcams and cameraphones, seem completely far-fetched. The laptop being on the floor of Elizabeth’s boyfriends apartment floor, webcam on, ready to catch her discussion with the police etc. – is a prime example of this. But, and thankfully this is positive but, those seemingly bizarre scenes are, in the context of the films epilogue, entirely justifiable.

Let me just talk for a moment, without going into too much detail, about that ending. Yes, the film ends on a downbeat note but then, oh my god then, it gets REALLY dark with an epilogue that questions everything that has come before; our use of the internet – in regards to opening up a world that a) we wouldn’t normally have access too and b) wouldn’t want anyone to know we have access to; ideas of voyeurism, anonymity and even the audiences participation in what has unfurled on the screen. In all honesty, I think The Den has possibly one of the greatest endings to a horror movie I have ever seen…

***** 5/5

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