It’s difficult to imagine that Zach Donohue’s The Den should ever have been anything other than an online web series, if that’s not, in fact, how it was originally conceived. The film’s spin on the found footage gimmick employs a series of screen cams, web cams, and smart phone cams for all of its shots. There are just enough cheap thrills to justify watching this footage in five or ten minute webisode-format chunks, and the thin logic of the conceit would hold up better to the short-term recall issues of that limited attention span. Most of The Den even takes place on the computer screen of its protagonist, so streaming it through a computer (as I did) adds a level of self-reflexivity that’s unfortunately not present otherwise.
Donohue’s “torture-porn goes cyber” thriller employs both the clichés of its genre and of internet culture. The film’s PYT protagonist Liz (Melanie Papalia) wins an academic grant to research the new norms of online video chat culture on a site called the Den (think ChatRoulette). After encountering a series of perverts and pranksters, she witnesses what she believes to be the murder of a young girl. The film could have taken a more interesting Rear Window or Blow-Up approach in having Liz randomly witness this incident, but the filmmakers choose instead to have her be the target — I guess because attractive young women should be careful of all the creeps out there. After being targeted for no apparent reason, she finds herself and her friends as the targets of a masked stalker both online and IRL.
Similar to Liz’s own alleged research into online culture, the film eschews any possible cultural insights in favor of easy laughs (penises!) and jump scares. While Donohue’s direction does manage to generate a certain amount of fear, his opening sequence — in which an adolescent chatter plays a “gotcha” scare prank — makes the point of how in this day and age almost any kid with an Apple computer can do the same. The best horror movies succeed at creating true existential dread, and despite the urban mythology of all the psychopaths trolling the web, The Den never succeeds at looking like anything more than an eerie horror video game. Plus, the trope of killers who can be anywhere at any time without regard to the laws of physics or even cyber-physics wears out pretty quickly — some Scream-like incompetence and human error would have been refreshing. Instead, the film delves into a rehashing of the Hostel films, though without the salient points about violence on screen and in society that Eli Roth’s films managed to slip in amid the severed limbs.
By the end, The Den hints that it is trying to make some sort of sweeping statement about the digital era, but it never goes further than suggesting the internet has provided a space to indulge humanity’s baser instincts, a fact we’ve known that since the days of dial-up connections and AOL Chat Rooms. It’s true that much more of our lives are spent online, whether via computer, smart phone, tablet, etc. But by utilizing the found footage gimmick, the film negates any possibility of examining what this could mean for people’s actual lives. If Liz is purposely spending all her time filming herself, does this convey anything about the role of video in contemporary communications? And finally, if our socialization has been so revolutionized by this technology, why are Liz’s only dating options the careerist yuppie or the “is he creepy or cute” tech nerd?