Thursday, September 04, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Den (2014)

[Warning: There be spoilers ahead.]

“Who’s really out there?”

That’s the primary question posed by The Den (2014), a surprisingly effective horror movie about the terrors of living life online in the year 2014. The film follows a curious graduate student, Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) who earns a prestigious research grant to study online habits and thus joins a video-chat site (think: Chat Roulette) called The Den.

When she must choose a name and password for The Den, Elizabeth also gets to select her experience grade.

She selects the option labeled “give me everything.”

In the span of ninety minutes or so, that’s exactly the experience Elizabeth gets, in a relentlessly edgy and unsettling film that is one part The Strangers (2008), and one part Hostel (2005).  

In this case, Elizabeth is stalked -- on-line and off -- by a cadre of ferocious masked killers. While trying to find and stop them, Elizabeth runs up against the barriers inherent in bringing accountability to the online world, namely the fact that not everyone online is really the person they claim to be, and that there are different expectations for behavior online than we encounter in real life.  Even the police seem to live by the edict that a threat on the Internet is, well, only a threat on the Internet.  Thus it is nothing to get too concerned over.

A social critique regarding the perils of the Web 2.0 Age, The Den covers virtually every high-tech indignity imaginable, from a sex tape accidentally uploaded to your boss, to the accidental downloading of malware that erases your hard-drive. The overriding conceit here is that the Web is a window that allows you to peek into the lives of others.  But -- importantly -- windows are transparent, meaning that those upon whom you gaze, can, simultaneously, gaze back at you. 

And windows, even high-tech ones, can be left unlocked.

Impressively, The Den’s leitmotif regarding windows is reflected in the very structure of the film itself. Basically, Elizabeth carries her laptop computer everywhere, and is always filming herself via web-camera. This is a condition of her grant: a life lived 24/7 online.

But at the same time, Elizabeth’s computer has open dialogue windows to The Den web site so as to accept chat requests, and other windows as well, including those to her boyfriend Darien, her buddy Max, or her very pregnant sister. 

Thus, between pop-up windows and web-cam windows, The Den is visualized throughout as a series of constantly shifting portals, ones always making new connections or closing old ones. Each new connection is an opportunity for terror…especially when you consider the fact that you don’t always know who is doing the typing you see spelled out on-screen.

How do you know JKM is the person actually writing this review? 

How do you know I haven’t been replaced by someone else?

Sure, you can guess from my word choices and my grammar that I’m “me,” but if this were a Facebook post, a tweet, or a chat (with no video), it would be more difficult to pick out or recognize my individual tics and quirks, wouldn’t it?

The Den thus plays wickedly with the assumptions we make every day on the Net about who we are holding conversations with.

The Den may also qualify as a found footage film, meaning that Elizabeth is always visible to the audience via these web-cam windows. Though the film is edited, of course, it presents the appearance of consisting only of unedited, raw footage in the spirit of something like The Blair Witch Project (1999).  Even that, however, is an assumption, as Elizabeth learns the hard way. At one point, she is faced with footage that appears to be live, but is actually a recording.

However, unlike most films of the found footage type, there’s never any report that Elizabeth’s footage is found by the authorities.  Instead, the other shoe drops when we realize Elizabeth’s “narrative” – the very substance of the film itself -- is available on a pay-per-view video site. She has been part of a drama and story not of her making.

Uniquely constructed as an online narrative with all the constantly opening and closing windows, The Den (2014) feels inventive and fresh, and there are many moments of authentic horror too as Elizabeth’s “real” life is violated and threatened in terrifying, unrelenting terms.

“It’s the Internet. You should have expected something like this.”

A graduate student named Elizabeth is awarded a grant to make a study of the kind of people who spend their time online. To further her research, she joins a video chat service called The Den. 

In short order, Elizabeth encounters all sorts of users, including jokesters, perverts, and apparently regular folks too. One night, Elizabeth’s boyfriend Damien sneaks into her house, and after startling her awake, performs oral sex on her. Neither of them realizes they are being recorded and that the footage of them is has been uploaded to members of Elizabeth’s grant board.

Then, one day, Elizabeth connects with Pyagrl16, a Den user whose webcam has been broken for days. Elizabeth suddenly sees the girl struggling -- tied-up and restrained -- just as a masked killer slits her throat. Elizabeth promptly notifies the police that there has been a murder online, but the authorities can’t do anything about it because, among other reasons, there’s no evidence that the crime is local.

Elizabeth then loses contact with her boyfriend, Damien. When she finds chat footage of him revealing that he has been abducted by a masked assailant, her hard-drive is promptly wiped by a virus, leaving her no evidence. Then, Elizabeth sees frightening footage on the Den suggesting that her pregnant sister is in danger.
Elizabeth calls the police and rushes to help, but a masked stranger is already inside her sister’s house…

“You’re going to need to embrace the Internet at some point.”

The Den opens with a terrific, well-orchestrated metaphor for the online life of today. Elizabeth randomly connects online with an innocent-looking boy, and he tells her that he is afraid of a monster in his bedroom closet. 

She asks to see the monster for herself, and the boy pans his web camera around the closet, and…

…well, the unexpected occurs.

At the end of this scene, we realize that the boy can’t be taken at his word, at least not exactly, and yet there is, actually, something lurking inside the closet, thus providing the film one hell of a jump scare. The scene beautifully suggests that life online isn’t exactly real life, and that deception is not only possible in this mode of communication, but frequent.

Originally titled “Death Online,” The Den thus explores the notion that despite all the windows into other human lives, not everybody on the Net presents themselves honestly, or as who they really are. Some folks puff up their resumes and Facebook walls so as to seem more important. Other folks knowingly perpetrate hoaxes. Other folks are out to steal your information. And some people simply hide behind anonymity, a shroud from which nasty bombs and screeds can be lobbed.

And then, finally, there are some folks -- not unlike the hunters of Hostel -- who see your entire life as a playground for them to control.

Spend too much time -- and share too much of your life -- online, suggests The Den, and you’re bound to run up against one kind of miscreant or another, if not a serial liar than someone who wants to really and truly do you harm. 

Elizabeth’s friend, Max, reminds her at one point “don’t open up attachments from strangers…ever,” but he might as well have told her: don’t make attachments to strangers, ever. 

That’s the danger proposed by The Den. The Internet creates feelings of intimacy and connection, but in some cases, they are illusory.

There are elements in The Den of the torture porn genre, the found-footage genre, and the slasher genre too, but categorizing the film is ultimately less important than noting that the filmmakers make us feel for Elizabeth and her plight, and we become invested in her survival. She’s a babe in the woods, so far as the net is concerned, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sympathize or worry for her when she’s targeted and pursued.

The last half-hour of the film, with Elizabeth running for her life, and discovering that her stalker has not acted alone, is mercilessly-paced, frenetically-filmed, and downright scary. The movie had me on the edge of my seat more than once.

At one point, The Den even looks like it will trample over the line of good taste when Elizabeth’s very pregnant sister is attacked, and a sharp knife is put to her belly. But the film walks a fine line, lingering for just the right duration on the terrible implications of the attack before backing away from total debauchery.

Also, The Den boasts a terrific pace, and escalates one step at a time, before reaching its climactic frenzy. Early in the film, for instance, we see a smorgasbord of life on the Net, as Elizabeth conducts her research. We see a man dancing in a bunny suit, a cute cat, and meet two Indian women who want to know, from Elizabeth, how to “satisfy a woman.” 

The most crucial of these sometimes funny, sometimes strange “life on the net” moments involves Elizabeth chatting with a man riding his bike through the heart of Manhattan. While talking to her, he is involved in an accident with a car, and we never know what happens to him. The warning here is that online life intrudes on normal life and can have consequences in the real world. 

It is a warning, alas, that Elizabeth doesn’t heed.

I admire how the film ramps up its sense of  rising horror, one strange experience at a time, and I was reminded how, in the incipient age of the Internet, an episode of Millennium (1996 – 1999) called “The Mikado” anticipated similar horrors. A good horror film or show is always perched right on the vanguard of technological advancement, warning us about how the tools we take for granted could change the very fabric of our lives…for the worse.

The Den fulfills that function admirably, and with ingenuity and thrills to spare. When I watch a horror film I want -- much like Elizabeth -- for it to “give me everything.”

The Den just about obliges.

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