Pull Up A Seat In “The Den”

Posted: September 4, 2014 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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So, yeah, it’s “found footage” horror time again, but with a twist — director Zachary Dohnohue (who co-wrote the script with Lauren Thompson) inserts a bit of a spanner into the works with his 2013 offering The Den (distributed by — quelle surprise! — IFC Midnight) by confining all the grim proceedings of his tale to footage purportedly captured either on computer webcam or cell phone cams. Hardly earth-shaking, I suppose, and probably bound to happen sooner rather than later, but it’s enough to set his flick apart from the (over)crowded pack and at least make for a somewhat surreal experience if you’re watching it, as I was, on your computer (via Netflix, of course, so while it’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray, don’t hold your breath for any technical specs with this review since I just streamed the damn thing).

Admittedly, even at 81 minutes Donohue stretches his premise pretty thin and there are a fair number of scenes that make you go “huh? People leave their cameras on for that?,” but at least the plot facilitates this reasonably enough, since the story set-up involves graduate student Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia) scoring a grant from her university to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on an internet chat site called — wait for it — The Den, where users randomly interact with anybody out there with nothing to do who happens to be in front of their webcam. I have no clue whether or not sites like this actually exist online, but if you think of a “chat roulette” version of Skype,  you’re getting somewhere close to the idea.

Anyway, apparently this site is so popular that it’s deemed worthy to be of serious academic study of the most immersive sort, but things take a turn for the worse when Elizabeth witnesses a brutal murder online that the cops, rather too conveniently, nearly immediately decide is real. Her long-suffering boyfriend, Damien (David Schlalchtenhaufen) wants her to pull up stakes and abandon her project, of course, but she gets more “into it” than ever — until he turns up missing, along with her best friend, and then she starts to piece together that whoever is getting their kicks by offing folks online might have set their sights set on her next.

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It’s a nifty and pacy little script, and Papilia does a nice job in the title role as she progresses from disinterested observer to more interested observer to willing participant to unwilling (and quickly falling apart at the seams) future victim, but there’s one major flaw that threatens the entire enterprise — throughout The Den we’re introduced to various personages in our protagonist’s life who might just have a motive, however twisted, for doing what they’re doing, and the story very definitely plays out in a technologically-augmented “whodunit?” manner, but — spoiler alert! — Donohue dumps all that in the finale when it turns out that the killer and/or killers have no connection to Elizabeth whatsoever. The “big reveal” is, in fact, completely unrealistic, but also, in its own way, strangely effective, so at least something of a satisfying conclusion is salvaged from what could be a real mess, but if you go into this without looking for suspects, no matter how much you may find yourself tempted to do so, you’ll come out of it feeling a lot better.  And that’s probably as much as I should say on the matter.

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Apart from that quibble, though — which I’ve just done the courtesy of saving you from buying into  if you haven’t seen it — there’s actually a fair amount for horror fans to like here, even if you’re sick to death of “found footage.” Our masked assassin is suitably creepy, there’s a healthy dose of intrigue involved throughout, the violence is genuinely shocking and brutal, and the characters are all reasonably likable, to the point where you sorta hate to see anything bad happen to them. Sure, you get the feeling that everyone’s doomed from the outset, but at least their various and sundry demises carry some impact with them when they arrive.  Crucially, too, Donohue knows how to escalate tension and times his various cinematic “body blows” well, ratcheting up the gravitas with each successive scene. Even the film’s “slow parts” feel reasonably crucial,  and since he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to waste, it’s good to see that, ya know, he doesn’t waste any.

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All in all, for a flick that very nearly falls completely off the rails, I walked away from The Den more impressed by it than perhaps it deserves. Which just goes to show that, in fact, it probably deserves it all the more. If that makes any kind of sense.

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