We all need to come to terms with the fact that found footage is here to stay for the time being. While some fillmmakers are at least trying to be innovative with their approach to the sub-genre, others seem content to wallow in well-worn “and two months later, their tapes were found” territory. The makers of The Den are thankfully among the innovators. Director Zachary Donohue and his co-writer Lauren Thompson present a tense, sometimes downright unnerving thriller told through a Chat-Roulette type of site and lots of phone/webcams. I’m as sick as the next guy of found footage, but The Den manages to present a solid take on the tired genre while adapting to changing technologies (like the shit show that is Chat-Roulette).
Besides the tech involved, the story is pretty damn sharp with loads of wickedly dark twists. It follows Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia), a grad student just awarded a grant for her thesis on social media. She loosely explains that her thesis requires her to be on a video chat site called “The Den” 24/7 so she can meet as many people as possible (something like that), but she winds up talking to the same handful of friends for most of the film. The strangers she does come across are the typical breed of dick swingers, dick puppets, and dicks begging to see her boobs. But hey, man, it’s research.
Then Elizabeth witnesses what looks like an actual murder, but no one believes her. The cops are no help and her boyfriend insists that it must’ve been a prank. Then more disturbing shit starts to go down, with Elizabeth at the eye of the storm. Whoever the killer is, he begins screwing with Elizabeth’s life in varying degrees of awful ways. It seems like a game at first – the work of some clever hackers maybe – but it soon becomes apparent that whoever is fucking with Elizabeth has a terrifying end game planned. Papalia gives a really solid performance, even when the character of Elizabeth is tough to sympathize with. She’s so naive at times it hurts.
Before you know it, the story goes from being a found footage gimmick to a genuine horror film drenched with suspense. It definitely blindsided me by going into some territories I didn’t expect. The third act has a Hostel vibe to it that takes the film beyond its found footage trappings, GoPro style! The majority of the film is set during the day, inside Elizabeth’s bright and cheery home. When the film heads into darkness, particularly during the third act, the shift is jarring. I mean that in a good way – another example of how Donohue and Thompson aren’t just hopping on the found footage bandwagon. They’ve got something sound to say about the internet and the dangers of putting a face on the millions of anonymous voices online.
If the concept of a movie being told entirely through video chats immediately turns you off, then you’ll probably want to stay away from The Den. If you can handle that kinda storytelling, definitely check this one out.
IFC Midnight is releasing The Den on VOD and select theaters March 14.