The Den Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Directed by Zachary Donohue
Written by Zachary Donohue and Lauren Thompson
2013, 81 minutes, Not Rated
Melanie Papalia as Elizabeth Benton
David Schlachtenhaufen as Damien
Matt Riedy as Sgt. Tisbert
Adam Shapiro as Max
Researching a project which requires her to scour online chat vehicle
Chat Roulette The Den for conversation good, bad and ugly, thesis student Elizabeth finds herself on the wrong side of the Internet when she happens across a real life serial killer. And there we were thinking online video chat was all flapping phalluses and sleazy weirdos trying to trick girls into showing off their feet.
Directed (and co-written) by Zachary Donohue, The Den employs one of the most interesting filming techniques I've seen in a while. Recorded mostly via Elizabeth's webcam – with the occasional excursion to her iPhone screen and other such third-party devices, it's found footage, but not as we know it. By which I mean good. It's not as though I have it in for the found footage subgenre – [REC] is one of my favourite horror films of all time, and I enjoyed the recent Hungerford and V/H/S series – but I have seen enough cut-and-paste (pun intended) cookie (also intended) cutter horror to last me a lifetime.
While there is an element of cliché and predictability to The Den (particularly during its finale), none of that is down to laziness or lack of invention on the film's part. The footage to be found consists of the view from Elizabeth's desktop – any program she opens, e-mail she reads or chat she has (family, friends and lover alike) we see and experience too. I found it to be particularly disconcerting as I watched the film via my own laptop. It's like the experience of using a computer at work and watching an IT technician move about your desktop from afar. Except, in this case, the IT technician is a serial killer and the desktop is your face. The mouse pointer is a blade, by the way.
Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson maintain an excellent handle on tone and pace from the start, hooking their audience with a number of basic yet effective jump scares and a surprising sense of humour. Elizabeth's initial forays into The Den is where the film is at its best, juggling comedy, tension, observation and gyrating genitalia while we get to know and like young Elizabeth. Melanie Papalia portrays the naïve student with equal parts vulnerability to spunk. While the role is mostly her looking apprehensive, scared or downright terrified, she's more than just a damsel in distress. Well, she is mostly a damsel in distress, but the action and Papalia's performance give her just enough personality that she's more than the two-dimensional victim she could have been. Like Manuela Velasco of [REC] and Alexie Gilmore of Willow Creek, Papalia is ideally suited to this sort of horror, possessing a wonderfully expressive face as she does. Mind, if you're going to point your camera head-on at someone for the best part of ninety minutes, you'd best make sure they can act.
While it does inevitably suffer from some of the subgenre's inherent flaws – there's a point where you can't help but wonder why she's still filming everything – it does a sterling job of sidestepping a good deal of them. Best of all, the interesting material isn't all relegated to the last ten minutes, and it doesn't end with a lingering shot of someone being dragged off into the darkness (although, admittedly, there is such a scene a little earlier). Smart, scary and genuinely creepy, The Den is that rare found footage horror film that's actually well worth bookmarking.