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The Den – 7

Director – Zachary Donohue

Cast – Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, Matt Riedy, Adam Shapiro, Victoria Hanlin, Brian Bell, Matt Lasky, Kirk Bovill, Bill Oberst Jr.

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

While attending Texas Frightmare Weekend 2014 in Dallas, TX I had the opportunity to screen several films, and the one I was most excited for was The Den. I am a video chatter and a sucker for the “found footage” sub-genre, so naturally The Den appealed highly to me. Sadly, I pulled an all-nighter so that I could enjoy the festivities after driving 9 hours to Dallas and chose to sleep instead of wait until midnight for The Den’s screening. I told myself that I probably did not miss much, but now that the film has hit Netflix I have been proven dead wrong.

Elizabeth is a young social media studies graduate student who has just received a grant for her thesis. Her research consists of studying the online activities and habits of the users of a video chat website known as The Den. During one of her random chats she witnesses the brutal murder of a teenage girl, but the police dismiss it as a clever viral prank. Elizabeth now takes it upon herself to find the truth behind the video, which leads her into the darkest cells of the internet as the killer makes her and those around her his next targets.

Writer/director Zachary Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson are first-timers who give us a story that is unlike any I have seen. Smiley is a horror film that involved video chatting, but he was a supernatural entity while the antagonist in this effort is a mortal human. They do a good job of setting a positive tone early in the film, enveloping me into the experience as if I was there in Elizabeth’s shoes. Before long, about 21 minutes into the film, she witnesses the brutal murder that was brilliantly executed. This was not completely out of nowhere, as she had contact with the shady anonymous user before, but this was the first time he let her know what she was dealing with. Like the plot summary says, nobody really believes Elizabeth about the video and she is forced to to her own investigating. This forces the killer to fight back and make her life a living hell. At first he does this by hacking into her life and ruining the researching she has worked so hard for, and before long he begins killing those around her. The horror manifests throughout the experience and by the third act all Hell has broken loose as he tries desperately to escape the clasps of her attacker. I was really surprised at the level of horror that was in this story. I expected a relatively tame experience with only enough horror to make this a horror film, but no, the carnage is heavy and builds up to an all-revealing climax you may or may not see coming.

This story gets a lot of things right, but there is one major fault that I must discuss. The story is downright unbelievable. The antagonist’s abilities are almost as inhuman as Smiley’s, from the scenes where he takes control of Elizabeth’s camera to the scenes where he gives her third-person views to the murders of her friends. If I foresee any complaints about the film it is going to be how unrealistic it is, and this unrealism takes place during the entire second and third acts. There is another potential fault, which is more subjective than the first, and that is the film’s climax. This climax will also fall under the preceding fault as it is quite unrealistic as well, but it also will be love/hate to the film’s viewers. While I balked at how unfathomable it was, I did find it pretty engaging and horrific as it was happening in real time, so I will say that for the most part it had a positive effect on me.

So, if this is the horror genre, which centers heavily on protagonists fighting a seemingly unbeatable force, why is the film’s lack of realistic conflict such a big deal? The reason is that this story is meant to mimic real life and our obsession with technology – namely video chatting. If you look at films where Jason Vorhees is the killer, a man who has died almost a dozen times but still slays all he comes across, these are flicks that are not representative of real life. That is not the case with The Den.

Donohue’s direction is good and I believe he made a name for himself with this effort. As I mentioned earlier, I was enveloped from the get-go and that is because of his great execution early on. If you have ever video chatted before then you should know what to expect, and if you have not then it is possible you won’t be interested or you will be highly engaged at something new in the genre. Elizabeth is executed as a mostly likable woman pursuing a dream that means a lot to her and not so much to everyone else. Maybe if her thesis was on a scientific matter than things would be different, but not too many people take you seriously when your field of study is online behavior. The acting performances from those involved are positive, with any faults falling into the unrealistic dialogue they had to spew. Also, keep an eye out for actor Bill Oberst Jr. in an insane cameo role. While I missed out on screening this film at the convention I was able to barely fit into the screening for the Oberst Jr.-starring Circus of the Dead, which was incredible. Moving on… When the horror first hits he ensures the shock value is high and he manages to keep shocking the viewer as the film progresses. Some of the kills are basic and others are quite brutal, and despite this being a film relying much on CGI there was no CGI gore that I noticed. I highly applaud Donohue for this because he could have easily relied on the CGI for the kills but he instead did things the right way and of course it added to the intensity of the kill sequences.

Overall, The Den is a unique film that provides good horror in a relatively short 79 minute package. To date I have not seen a film like this, and that says something for the convoluted found-footage sub-genre. The horror is solid and pretty shocking at times, showing that Donohue has a future here if he can keep this up. The film will definitely come off very unrealistic for the majority of viewers, but if you can look past that you will probably enjoy the ride.

Rating: 7/10

…Additional Stills…

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