Review: THE DEN

I should preface this review by saying I’m convinced there’ll never be a truly great found footage movie made in this millennium. The genre is tired and restricted and seems to exist solely as a means for young filmmakers to cut their teeth without breaking the bank. Which is fine, because everyone has to start somewhere, and money is hard to come by. Grab a cheap DSLR camera and buckets of fake blood and get to work. But every once in a while one of these movies will surface and remind you of what is good about the genre – the looseness and energy of the roaming camera, the freshness of natural lighting and improvised dialogue, and the clever ways you can tell a simple story from various points of view.

I guess that’s where The Den comes in. It’s been on my radar since seeing it pop up on Reddit a few months back, although I can’t say I was particularly grabbed by the trailer. Still, curious now, my wife and I added it to our ever-growing To Watch list where it was promptly buried and forgotten about until we stumbled across it again when scouring through FrightFest’s line-up.

2012 brought both Chronicle and Evidence, two worthwhile found footage movies that attempted to rail against the confines of the genre by blending it with others (Superhero and Zombie, respectively.) The Den doesn’t have the budget of Chronicle, or the bat-shit crazy ambition of Evidence. But what it does have is an array of crafty ways to keep the audience guessing until the end, and for this to happen in such a limited genre, that’s nigh on a miracle.

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The story of The Den is fairly straightforward – Elizabeth (a fierce Melanie Papalia), is a student living in Los Angeles. She applies for a grant to study internet relationships where, using a Chatroulette-esque website called The Den, she’ll record herself 24 hours a day for several weeks and report back the findings.

As per horror movie standards, there is a scare in the first scene. On the surface, it’s a typical cheap gag to help set the tone, but director Zachary Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson are savvy and this scene is more than it appears to be.

As is the current trend, we don’t spend much time developing  story or getting to know the peripheral characters before the plot kicks in and we’re out the gates. The editing style was a bit off-putting to start, as though the filmmakers were in a rush to get past that whole pesky set-up stuff, but essentially this is a story about a person sitting alone in a room in front of a computer, something probably very familiar to most people in 2014, so I suppose there’s not really much of a need to really dwell on it. That said, if you can keep on board for the first 15 minutes you should enjoy the rest of the ride.

Over the next hour, Elizabeth dedicates her life to her study, and in focusing on people around the world who she doesn’t know, she isolates herself from those she does, which leads to the deterioration of her relationships with her boyfriend, her sister, her BFF, and her geeky IT buddy.

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Predictably, something goes wrong, as her computer is apparently hacked by someone within The Den website, and spooky things start to happen. We’re left guessing for a while whether there’s going to be a supernatural turn of events before the filmmakers clue us into what’s really going on – sadistic killers are using the website to find their victims and to record their murders. Elizabeth is the perfect prey, and one by one her friends pay the price.

So, fairly standard if you’re just reading a review of the plot. But a couple of things stand out here –

First, nearly the entire movie consisted of one actor alone in a room talking to a screen. For the first hour, there are maybe 3 scenes where Melanie was even in another room with another actor, and yet despite this limitation she put in a very nice performance, with well-timed laughs (in the funny bits) and believable terror (in the scary bits).

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Second, the structure works really well, and although we’re treated to all the familiar horror film tropes, they feel fresh and unpredictable here, and the various reveals throughout are handled well. In addition, we switch perspectives constantly without getting lost in chaos, and, amazingly, there was really only one scene where I thought, “Ok, now is the time to set down the goddamn camera and run!”

The build up takes us seamlessly from a paranoid cyber-thriller to a Strawdogs entrapment film to girl on the run action movie. The framing was loose but the camera always seemed to land where it could deliver the best creeps. The cinematography in the later sequences inside the underground bunker was impressive, especially the scene of Elizabeth chained to the floor. The violence was realistic and varied – there were several scenes of violence laced throughout the script, and each one delivered the right amount of shock both in terms of authentic gore and expert timing. Overall, the craftsmanship that Donohue and crew display here is very impressive.

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The other noteworthy element was the movie’s influences – for example, the framing of this shot reminded me more than a little of this famous shot from Alien 3; the early visual style was inline with mumblecore naturalism and in fact one scene reminded me of Joe Swanberg’s first forey into the horror genre, the segment “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” in V/H/S. The final foot- and car-chase sequence was as spectacular (if not nearly as long) as Gareth Evans’ “Safe Haven” segment in V/H/S 2. The dizzying, too-quick-for-its-own-good editing style to start the movie reminded me of Richard Linklater‘s underrated drama Tape. The twist (?) ending was reminiscent of My Little Eye. There were echoes of everything from Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video to the web-series Marble Hornets. So from a purely film fan perspective, this mash-up of influences was a lot of fun.

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The Den is playing at Film 4’s Fright Fest in London on August 22. My interviews with director Zachary Donohue and actress Melanie Papalia should be posted here soon.

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